Since antipersonnel landmines were banned by a majority of nations 15 years ago via an international treaty, their use even by those outside the treaty has become rare, as it has become widely stigmatized. Even officials from the US, which has not banned landmines, have often expressed concern at new mine use. In 2012, for example, Susan Rice, then US ambassador to the UN, described reports that the Syrian government had used antipersonnel mines on its borders with Lebanon and Turkey as "horrific."
Yet the US remains one of three-dozen countries that have yet to join the Mine Ban Treaty [PDF]. It is baffling: the US, which has not used antipersonnel mines in more than two decades, is the only member of NATO that has not banned them.
In December 2009, a State Department official informed [PDF] the Second Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty that a comprehensive review of US landmine policy had been "initiated at the direction of President Obama." The review is examining whether the US should relinquish antipersonnel landmines and accede to the treaty.
As commander in chief of the US armed forces, President Barack Obama is the ultimate decision-maker on landmine policy and will rely on the advice of his team of principal advisors. As has been the case in other countries, the president must determine whether the severe and long-lasting negative consequences of antipersonnel landmines outweigh any military benefits that could be derived from their use. That determination will go a long way in defining President Obama's legacy on disarmament, multilateralism and the rule of law.
Proponents of a ban on antipersonnel mines include the 161 nations that have given up these weapons by joining the Mine Ban Treaty. They include civil society groups working under the umbrella coalition of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, including Human Rights Watch and other non-governmental organizations. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is the principal congressional champion, having dedicated efforts over the past 20 years to eradicate these weapons through legislative initiatives such as the 1992 moratorium on US exports of antipersonnel mines and through the funding of initiatives to assist landmine victims and to clear mines.
Ban proponents point to the successes of the treaty and the degree to which it has stigmatized use of the weapon while creating a new international standard of behaviour. Since the Mine Ban Treaty became binding international law on March 1, 1999, more than 47 million antipersonnel mines have been destroyed from stockpiles, large tracts of mine-affected land have been cleared and returned to productive use, the number of new landmine victims has fallen dramatically and use of the weapon is largely limited to pariah regimes. As a major contributor to the funding of mine action, the US has played an important role in some of these achievements despite not joining the Mine Ban Treaty.
Few US officials have spoken on the matter while the policy review is underway, but examples can be found. On March 6, 2014, during a hearing
[video] of the House Armed Services Committee, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, stated he considers antipersonnel mines "to be an important tool in the arsenal of the armed forces of the United States."
Dempsey noted that the US forces are now only allowed to use antipersonnel mines with a feature that can be set to self-destruct after a number of hours or days. These so-called smart antipersonnel mines are remotely delivered; scattered over wide areas by aircraft, artillery or rockets; and equipped with a self-destruct feature designed to blow the mine up after a pre-set period of time.
The US sought unsuccessfully to exempt "self-destruct" mines from the definition of landmines covered by the ban during the 1997 negotiations of the Mine Ban Treaty but was rebuffed by its closet military allies, who concluded that the humanitarian dangers of such mines outweighed any military utility.
Dempsey's defense of self-destruct mines was puzzling, as the last time the US used antipersonnel mines of any kind—self-destruct or not—was back in 1991, during the First Gulf War. Over the past 20 years the US has fought a range of conflicts—both high and low intensity—in a variety of environments and has demonstrated that it can employ alternative strategies, tactics and weaponry without resorting to antipersonnel mines. It has also spent more than $1 billion on the development and production of systems that could be considered alternatives to antipersonnel mines.
Dempsey also told the House Armed Services Committee that antipersonnel landmines form part of the US capability to deter aggression and defend South Korea from an invasion by North Korea.
There are two specific considerations regarding Korea for the US landmine policy review. One is the arrangement for a joint command structure that would put a US general in charge of South Korean military forces in the event of active hostilities and the potential problems that might cause if the US was party to the Mine Ban Treaty but South Korea was not. The decision taken several years ago to put South Koreans in charge of their own forces during wartime still has not been implemented, but the future command structure has been agreed so the implementation delay should not be an obstacle to the US joining the Mine Ban Treaty.
A second concern is the possible need for the US to use antipersonnel mines in the event of an invasion by North Korea. The landmines already laid in and near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea are the responsibility of South Korean forces and not the US. As a result of the 2004 policy decision by President George W. Bush, the US has already prohibited the use by its forces in Korea and throughout the world of non self-destruct antipersonnel mines. But some still maintain that the US may need to use self-destructing landmines in Korea.
Numerous retired military officers have questioned the utility of antipersonnel mines in Korea, citing the overwhelming technological superiority of other weapons in the US-South Korean arsenal compared to North Korea as sufficient to compensate for not using mines. In 1997, a former commander of US forces in Korea, Lt. General James Hollingsworth, said that antipersonnel landmines' "minimal" utility to US forces is "offset by the difficulty ... [they] pose to our brand of mobile warfare...not only civilians, but US armed forces, will benefit from a ban on landmines. US forces in Korea are no exception."
Dempsey's defense of antipersonnel mines was not surprising, as any military's inclination is to retain rather than relinquish every weapon at its disposal. But giving up antipersonnel mines is a political decision that must be taken at the highest level. It is not a decision to be left to the military.
President Bill Clinton was the first world leader to call for the eventual elimination of all antipersonnel landmines almost two decades ago, in September 1994. While the Clinton Administration did not sign the Mine Ban Treaty after it was negotiated in 1997, Clinton set the goal to join in 2006. That approach was abandoned by President Bush, who issued a policy in February 2004 affirming that the US would never join the treaty.
The US Campaign to Ban Landmines is urging that the outcome of the review be a decision to join the Mine Ban Treaty as soon as possible, to prohibit the use of antipersonnel mines immediately and to begin destruction of all stocks of antipersonnel mines. US accession to the treaty would help to convince the other countries to join, strengthening the norm against antipersonnel mines and ensuring they are not used in the future and create no additional humanitarian and socio-economic harm.
Expectations are running high that the Obama Administration will conclude the landmine policy review by the time of the Mine Ban Treaty's Third Review Conference, to be held in Mozambique in June 2014. The US has already indicated it will attend the Maputo review conference, but in what capacity remains to be determined by the still to be concluded landmine policy review.
Mary Wareham is advocacy director of the Arms Division, where she leads Human Rights Watch's advocacy against particularly problematic weapons that pose a significant threat to civilians. Wareham was senior advocate for the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch from 1998 to 2006 and was responsible for global coordination of the Landmine Monitor research initiative, which verifies compliance and implementation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. From 1996 to 1997, Wareham worked for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, assisting Jody Williams in coordinating the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize together with Williams. Wareham worked as a researcher for the New Zealand parliament from 1995 to 1996 after receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Victoria University of Wellington.
Suggested citation: Mary Wareham, The US Says Landmines are Horrific—So Why Won't It Ban Them?, JURIST-Professional Commentary, Apr. 19, 2014, http://jurist.org/hotline/2014/04/mary-wareham-landmine-ban.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Jason Kellam, a Section Editor in JURIST's Commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org