Some good news on the humanitarian front came this morning as the White House announced that, after years of deliberation, the United States will mostly comply with the Ottawa Convention, which seeks to eradicate the use of anti-personnel landmines (APLs).
The commitment means that the US will destroy its APL stockpiles and pledge not assist or encourage APL use by other states -– with one caveat: none of these commitments will apply to the Korean Peninsula.
The Ottawa Convention, also known as the Mine Ban Treaty, was drafted in 1997 and to date, 162 countries are bound by it. The United States, however, refused to sign the treaty when it was drafted, along with other major powers like Russia and China. Although the United States has not manufactured APLs since the late 1990s, it holds on to a stockpile of 3 million mines and, until this morning, reserved the right to use them. Earlier this year, the U.S. announced that it would officially no longer produce new landmines, allowing its stockpile of self-destructing – or “smart” – landmines in its arsenal to dwindle.
The only thing keeping the United States from fully complying with the Ottawa Convention is its insistence that APLs are crucial to the defense of the 38th parallel that separates the South Korea from North Korea. “Even as we take these further steps, the unique circumstances on the Korean Peninsula and our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea preclude us from changing our anti-personnel landmine policy there at this time,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
Seeking to allay concerns about the U.S.’ defenses overall being weakened, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby put out a statement strongly defending the move. “Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel fully supports the changes to U.S. anti-personnel landmine (APL) policy announced by the president today,” Kirby’s statement read. ”The department will not use anti-personnel landmines outside the Korean Peninsula; will not assist, encourage, or induce others outside the Korean Peninsula to engage in activity prohibited by the Ottawa Convention; and will undertake steps to begin the destruction of APLs not required for the defense of South Korea.”
Critics say that the United States refusal to fully comply with the treaty provides political cover for other countries to continue their use of land mines. “It’s good that the Obama administration is inching toward joining the Mine Ban Treaty, but Korean civilians need protections from these weapons just as much as the people in every other country,” said Steve Goose , arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines, in a statement. “A geographic exception to the ban is no more acceptable today than when the treaty was negotiated.”
Banning APLs has been at the center of the international humanitarian agenda for decades now. According to a 2008 UN report, landmines kill between 15,000 to 20,000 people every year, continuing to do damage decades after the wars that were their raison d’etre have ended. The Red Cross reports that land mines left over from past wars remain a threat to over 60 states and areas, with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, and Myanmar being chief among them.
The United States is well aware of the devastating effects that APLs have on past war zones. It is the country that has spent the most — $2.3 billion since 1993– to help affected areas destroy conventional weapons, the White House said, a large part of which went to the destruction of land mines. APLs not only result in death and serious injury, but also less direct social effects, serving as a deterrent agriculture and economic development.
The ultimate goal of the United States, according to State Department Spokesperson Jan Psaki, is to join the other 162 countries that comply with Ottawa: “In the meantime, we will continue our diligent efforts to pursue solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow us to join the Ottawa Convention.” she said in a statement.