U.S. Pledges To Stop Producing New Landmines

A Bosnian soldier searches for mines in fields that have flooded CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SULEJMAN OMERBASIC
A Bosnian soldier searches for mines in fields that have flooded CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SULEJMAN OMERBASIC

The United States announced on Friday that it will no longer produce new anti-personnel landmines (APL), letting its current stockpile dwindle and moving towards finally implementing a treaty banning the use of the weapons that have killed an estimated 20,000 people annually.

The pronouncement came at a conference being held in Mozambique reviewing the progress of the Ottawa Treaty, also known as the the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention or just the Landmine Ban Treaty, fifteen years after its passage. Because the U.S. has never acceded to the terms of the treaty, Washington was only present as an observer. While there, however, U.S. ambassador to Mozambique Douglas Griffiths declared that the U.S. will not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel landmines in the future, including to replace existing stockpiles as they expire.

Since its completion in 1997, 161 countries have signed onto the Landmine Ban Treaty, with a few notable exceptions such as India, Pakistan, Russia, and China — and the United States. When President Obama first took office in 2009, activists hoped that the new administration would reverse the decision to hold back from the treaty. Instead, however, the State Department decided to hold its course. “This administration undertook a policy review and we decided that our landmine policy remains in effect,” spokesman Ian Kelly said at the time.

Now, however, the U.S. has softened that stance some, though not saying that it would be joining the Landmine Ban Treaty anytime in the immediate future. “Our delegation in [Maputo, Mozambique] made clear that we are diligently pursuing solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement announcing the shift. “They also noted we are conducting a high fidelity modeling and simulation effort to ascertain how to mitigate the risks associated with the loss of APL. Other aspects of our landmine policy remain under consideration and we will share outcomes from that process as we are in a position to do so.”

This new announcement builds on previous commitments, the White House said in a fact sheet accompanying the announcement, “to end the use of all non-detectable mines and all persistent mines, which can remain active for years after the end of a conflict.” In layman’s terms, in the past administrations have chosen to draw the line between so-called “dumb mines,” which last indefinitely, and “smart mines” that deactivate on their own. While the Clinton administration refused to sign onto the Ottawa Convention, it did decide to ban its use of “dumb mines” everywhere but on the border between North and South Korea, already destroying 3.3 million AP mines back in 1999. At present, the U.S. is estimated to have approximately 9 million self-destructing anti-personnel mines in its stockpile.

As recently as two days ago, the U.S. was being criticized for not taking more action on banning its own use of landmines. Now, Stephen Goose, executive director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times after the announcement that his organization is “very pleased with the U.S. announcement that it intends to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty, and that it has instituted a new policy banning future production of antipersonnel mines.” But, he added, it makes “little sense to acknowledge that the weapons must be banned due to the humanitarian harm they cause, and yet insist on being able to use them,” he said. “The U.S. should set a target date for joining the Mine Ban Treaty, should commit to no use of antipersonnel mines until it accedes, and should begin destruction of its stocks.”

Every year, according to the United Nations, landmines kill between 15,000 to 20,000 people — mostly women, children, and the elderly — and maim an untold number more. The United States is the world’s single largest financial supporter of de-mining efforts, Hayden noted in her statement, “providing more than $2.3 billion in aid since 1993 in more than 90 countries for conventional weapons destruction programs.” Despite that, landmines still continue to make headlines, as in the case of the recent flooding in Bosnia, where torrential rain uncovered and shifted the location of hundreds of mines left over from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.