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Obama Administration Urged to Release Landmine Policy Review

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In advance of the 15th anniversary of the entry into force of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction – more commonly referred to as the “Ottawa Convention” or the “Mine Ban Treaty” – the Obama administration should release the results of its landmine policy review. It has been fourteen months since the United States announced that it would release the results of its review of US landmine policy “soon.”  The Obama administration should commit, in the words of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, “to ban these inhumane weapons that are no longer essential to our security or the security of our allies.”

The treaty’s third review conference, which will open in Maputo, Mozambique on June 23, provides an opportunity for the United States to highlight and explain its new position. A new Obama policy on landmines should recommend that the United States: 

  • join the Mine Ban Treaty as soon as possible,
  • prohibit the use of anti-personnel mines immediately, and
  • begin destruction of all stocks of anti-personnel mines.

These recommendations are realistic and would go a long way in restoring the US’ long-damaged reputation on anti-personnel landmines that resulted from its reluctance to sign the Mine Ban Treaty, and the subsequent disregard with which the George W. Bush administration treated the Treaty.

The United States’ history with landmines has been frustrating to close US allies and Treaty supporters alike. In the early 1990s, under the prompting of Senator Patrick Leahy, the US led global advocacy for the elimination of anti-personnel mines and participated in the Ottawa Process that ultimately led to the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997. While the US did not sign the Treaty at that time, due in part to the lack of an exception for the landmines placed along the North-South Korean demilitarized zone, President Clinton did lay out a goal of acceding to the Treaty by 2006.

However, when President George W. Bush took office, his administration reversed course on US landmine policy. Under the Bush administration’s 2004 policy, the US retained the right to develop and use landmines that self-destruct or self-deactivate – often called “non-persistent” or “smart” mines. These mines could be considered less dangerous than non-self-destructing mines, but mine ban advocates including Treaty negotiators did not exempt these types of anti-personnel mines from the ban due to concerns over the weapons technology. Non-persistent mines have the ability to be scattered over wide areas, they are often used thousands at a time, and the self-destruct mechanisms on these mines have an estimated failure rate of 1-10%.

Current US policy on landmines is consistent with the 2004 Bush administration update. Thus, when President Obama took office in 2009, he announced that the current policy would be put under review – an endeavor that is now in its fifth year. The contents of the policy review are unclear, as are any details on what has contributed to the delay in the policy’s release. At a December 2012 meeting, US officials noted that there were “operational issues related to accession [to the Mine Ban Treaty] that require careful consideration,” but did not provide further details as to the main issues of concern. In the five years since the review was announced, 68 Senators and more than 200,000 Americans have written letters to Obama to support the US joining the Mine Ban Treaty.

The US’ continued delay in updating the ten-year-old policy stands in contrast to overwhelming domestic and international support for the prohibition of anti-personnel mines. The Mine Ban Treaty currently has 161 States Parties. All EU member states are parties, as is every member of NATO, with the exception of the United States. Even major US allies, including Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq and Japan, are States Parties to the Treaty.

And although the US is not party to the Mine Ban Treaty, the country has been in compliance with the Treaty’s main provisions for more than 15 years. The United States has not used anti-personnel mines since the first Gulf War in 1991. Moreover, the United States has not exported anti-personnel landmines since 1992 and has not produced them since 1997. The United States has also been the single largest donor to mine action for more than a decade, contributing $134.4 million in 2012 alone.

Only 36 countries, including the United States, are outside the Mine Ban Treaty, and nearly all are in de facto compliance with the Treaty’s provisions. The only government use of anti-personnel mines has been undertaken by non-signatories Myanmar (Burma) and Syria. Therefore, it is evident that over the past 15 years, a global norm against the “development, production, use, otherwise acquisition, stockpiling, retention, or transfer” of anti-personnel mines has taken root.

US accession to the Mine-Ban Treaty is consistent with the Obama administration’s commitment to international humanitarian law, protection of civilians, arms control and disarmament, and multilateralism. It is a bi-partisan initiative that has had the support of both sides of the aisle. Moreover, the US military has not needed and will not need to use anti-personnel landmines to accomplish military objectives. The mines used now – command-detonated (man-in-the-loop) devices such as Claymore directional fragmentation munitions and the “Spider” system – are not prohibited by the Treaty. And, while an exception for Korea was not granted in the original Mine Ban Treaty negotiations, former US military leaders have publicly stated that anti-personnel mines are not crucial for the overall defense of South Korea. The mines in the DMZ belong to South Korea and thus, if the US joined the Mine Ban Treaty it would only be prohibited from assisting South Korea with the use, production, stockpiling, or transfer of anti-personnel mines, not in the overall defense of South Korea. 

It has been two decades since President Clinton called for the “eventual elimination” of anti-personnel landmines. The world has been moving towards that goal. It’s time for the United States to officially join them.

Note: On February 19 the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention Implementation Support Unit and Human Rights Watch on behalf of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines, with the support of the European Union, is hosting an event to promote the Mine Ban Treaty and encourage a positive conclusion to the US landmine policy review. The event, featuring Keynote addresses by Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, HRH Prince Mired Raad Al Hussein of Jordan, and Senator Patrick Leahy, will also feature a panel that features a retired general, a landmine survivor, a mine action practitioner, and the chair of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines moderated by Stimson Senior Associate Rachel Stohl. Concluding remarks will be provided by a representative from the government of Mozambique, which is serving as president of the Mine Ban Treaty’s the Third Review Conference.

The event, “The United States and the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty” is Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC from 9:30-11:30 am. RSVP here.

Rachel Stohl is a senior associate with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative. Shannon Dick is a research assistant with the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative.


Photo by jystewart via flickr


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