US Landmine Policy: We Don't Have a Leg to Stand On

land mines treaty

The United States remains one of the few countries in the world which has still not signed the 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty.

The Obama administration initiated a review of its landmine policy in late 2009. Since then, Obama has received letters urging the U.S. to sign the treaty from 68 Senators, nearly 100 leaders of prominent U.S. nongovernmental organizations, key NATO allies, retired senior military officers, and 16 Nobel Peace Prize recipients, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel.

The 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty (also called the “Ottawa Treaty”) was a landmark humanitarian accomplishment. For the first time in history, a coalition of governments and non-government civil institutions joined together to ban a conventional weapon that had been used by armed forces around the world for decades. Since then, 159 nations have signed the formal ban on landmine use, sale, stockpile and trade — one of the most successful civil-society bodies of international law ever constructed.

Every NATO nation has joined. Every nation in the Western Hemisphere has also signed — except two: the U.S. and Cuba. (Perhaps the U.S. needs landmines to protect coastal Florida from a pending Cuban army land invasion?)*

Obama is not the first U.S. President to stand apart from the majority of nations who have already joined the ban. That distinction begins with President Clinton, who deferred the decision through his entire two-term Presidency, ultimately offering a ‘pledge’ that the U.S. would sign in 2006 (after his terms of office ended). In 2004, the Bush administration, following script, rejected Clinton’ pledge and, like its Democratic White House predecessor, refused to sign the treaty.

For most of the rest of the world, the Mine Ban Treaty entered into force on March 1, 1999, just 15 months after it was negotiated — the shortest time ever for a multilateral treaty.

In the 1980s and 90’s, awareness about the indiscriminate danger to civilians posed by the weapon increased, with celebrities such as Prince Diana personally becoming involved in the movement, which led to the creation of the 1997 Treaty.

In April 1996, a group of highly decorated retired U.S. generals and admirals published an open letter to President Clinton calling on the U.S. to ban landmines. Signatories included Persian Gulf Commander General Norman Schwarzkopf, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General David Jones, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Johan Galvin, and Lt. General James Hollingsworth, the former Commander of U.S. forces in Korea. The Generals stated: “Given the wide range of weaponry available to military forces today, anti-personnel land mines are not essential.”

At the same time, a large international study conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, involving former and active military personnel from 19 countries, concluded that  mines were of “limited military utility.”

Contrary to these military experts, however, the political appointees of successive U.S. administrations maintain that landmines are a military necessity. In 2004, the State Department (under Bush) said: “The Ottawa Convention would prohibit U.S. forces from employing munitions that those forces might need for carrying out their defense commitments.” A fact sheet issued by the State Department then said: “No other weapon exists that provides all the capabilities provided by landmines.”

In 2009 (Obama), State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said: “…we would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we signed this convention,” he said, without providing specifics.

Nobel laureate Jody Williams (and co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines) called the State Department’s national defense claims “absurd” in a December 2009 op-ed published widely. “Could it really be true that the U.S. would remain outside one of the most inclusive and comprehensive treaties put together in the last 50 years?” she asked. “I voted for Obama. I wanted to believe that his soaring rhetoric might actually be turned into a revival for the U.S. on issues of multilateralism, international humanitarian law and, of course, human rights.”

“The US already follows most of the key provisions in the Mine Ban Treaty” and “has not used antipersonnel landmines in two decades.  They are a deadly relic of the past and should never be used again,” added  Steve Goose, the arms director at Human Rights Watch.

Exact figures are considered nearly impossible to record on mine-related casualties. The Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor, the research and monitoring wing of the ICBL, identified 3,956 casualties worldwide in 2009 due to mines, victim-activated IED’s (improvised explosive devices), cluster munitions remnants, and other war-remnants in 64 nations. 70% of these casualties were civilians. Afghanistan has the highest number of such casualties.

“A never-ending review with no announced outcome is not a satisfactory response to the innocent survivors and mine-impacted communities that are waiting for the
U.S. to finally join the treaty and ban landmines once and for all,” said Zach Hudson, the Coordinator of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines, in a March 2012 press release. “The administration needs to submit the treaty to the Senate for its consent or explain its rationale for continuing the Bush-era policy of near isolation in remaining outside the convention.”

The issue, perhaps overlooked among the mainstream U.S. public, nevertheless remains a global hazard for civilians around the world. Former FBI director Robert Mueller, visiting Burma, is attributed with the following observation: “I asked a Burmese why women, after centuries of following their men, now walk ahead. He said there were many unexploded land mines since the war.”

Lt. General Robert G. Gard, a former commander of U.S. troops in Korea, had this message for President Obama: “As a commander of U.S. troops in combat in Korea and Vietnam, I did not allow my soldiers to use anti-personnel land mines because I believed them to be a net liability. As President Obama seeks to repair America’s reputation abroad, advocating U.S. adherence to the mine ban treaty would be a low-cost, meaningful gesture of diplomatic goodwill with both humanitarian and practical benefits. U.S. participation would almost certainly aid efforts to universalize the treaty by increasing pressure on other hold-out nations like China and Russia.”

Top Image Credit: land mines sign courtesy shutterstock

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