Anti-tank or Anti-vehicle mines: Perfectly legal and plenty lethal

I said when I started this blog (August 1st Post) that I would be using the Mine Ban Treaty’s definition of a landmine, specifically meaning anti-personnel landmines, but of late I’m having trouble with that definition.  A landmine is a landmine is a landmine.  An anti-tank or anti-vehicle mine is as dangerous (if not almost certainly more lethal) to a person than an anti-personnel mine.  A single anti-vehicle mine can also kill or injure on a greater scale than an anti-personnel mine.  Recent mine accidents in Abyei, Sudan (BBC News), in Eritrea (All Africa) and just this past weekend in South Sudan’s Unity State (Africa Review) were likely caused by anti-vehicle mines, killing thirty-one and injuring fifty-two others in just three incidents.  In addition to their greater potency, anti-vehicle landmines are perfectly legal for states to use, even those that are party to the Mine Ban Treaty.

From the recently updated United Nations Disarmament page on landmines:

“Landmines come in two varieties: anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Both have caused great suffering in the past decades. Anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the [Mine Ban Treaty], adopted in 1997… The Secretary-General calls on all countries to also regulate the use of anti-vehicle landmines. Such weapons [anti-vehicle mines] continue to cause many casualties, often civilian. They restrict the movement of people and humanitarian aid, make land unsuitable for cultivation, and deny citizens access to water, food, care and trade.” (United Nations).

So, where does this distinction between anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines come from?  I can trace it back to the International Committee of the Red Cross’s 1996 report, Antipersonnel Landmines: Friend or Foe?, in which a group of military experts had made several declarations regarding the military utility of anti-personnel mines.  The report and the assembled experts declared that “the military value of anti-tank mines is acknowledged, the value of AP mines is questionable” and “The limited military utility of AP mines is far outweighed by the appalling humanitarian consequences of their use in actual conflicts” (Journal of Mine Action). With the support of military experts and leaders, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines could lobby governments to ban anti-personnel mines, but the declaration of the “military value of anti-tank mines” meant that governments would be loath to ban those munitions as well.

Anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines are defined in Article 2 of the Mine Ban Treaty as follows:

“’Anti-personnel mine’ means a mine designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person and that will incapacitate, injure or kill one or more persons. Mines designed to be detonated by the presence, proximity or contact of a vehicle as opposed to a person, that are equipped with anti-handling devices, are not considered anti-personnel mines as a result of being so equipped…

“’Anti-handling device’ means a device intended to protect a mine and which is part of, linked to, attached to or placed under the mine and which activates when an attempt is made to tamper with or otherwise intentionally disturb the mine” (Mine Ban Treaty, emphasis added). 

By defining anti-vehicle mines according to their intended purpose and mentioning anti-handling devices, but specifically using the word “that” instead of “and,” the Mine Ban Treaty authors allowed states to continue to manufacture and use anti-vehicle mines. Also, not all anti-vehicle mines possess anti-handing devices: “Technical literature suggests that between 50 per cent and 75 per cent of existing anti-vehicle mine types are equipped with antihandling devices. Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Sweden and the UK [all parties to the Mine Ban Treaty] possess anti-vehicle mines with anti-handling devices” (German Initiative to Ban Landmines, pdf), but the report does not say whether all of those countries’ anti-vehicle mines have antihandling devices.  

According to Human Rights Watch, “Under the definition of “antihandling device” in the Mine Ban Treaty, the following would be included:

  • antihandling, anti-disturbance, anti-tilt circuits and fuzes
  • anti-lift and pressure release circuits and fuzes
  • trip, contact and break wires
  • tilt rod fuzes
  • magnetic influence fuzes
  • light sensitive fuzes
  • cocked striker mechanisms in the firing chain
  • motion sensitive fuzes
  • acoustic sensors
  • infra-red (IR) sensors
  • seismic or vibration sensors
  • electro-magnetic sensors

It would appear that any use of tilt rods, tripwires, breakwires, and contact wires would be prohibited under the treaty, as they could clearly cause the antivehicle mine to explode from an unintentional act” (ICBL).

Four state parties, Denmark, France, Japan and the United Kingdom, have declared that all anti-vehicle mines, whether or not they possess anti-handling devices, are allowed under the Mine Ban Treaty.  Other states parties, twenty-five in all, “Support the view that any mine, despite its label or design intent, capable of being detonated by the unintentional act of a person is an AP mine and is prohibited;” which includes anti-vehicle mines and those with anti-handling devices.  Certain anti-handling devices, like tilt rods and trip wires are more likely to be accidentally triggered than others, hence the broader definition taken by these twenty-five parties.  Therefore, that means that remaining 120 parties have not expressed any opinion about when anti-vehicle mines might qualify as anti-personnel mines (The Monitor, pdf).

So, many countries possess anti-vehicle mines, many without anti-handling devices, and countries are allowed to buy, sell or transfer anti-vehicle mines to any country virtually without restriction.  Where the Mine Ban Treaty strictly prohibits the sale or transfer of anti-personnel mines, anti-vehicle mines face no such restriction.  I had been wondering about where the landmines that were plaguing the roads in Sudan and South Sudan in recent months had come from since both Sudan and South Sudan had declared their stockpiles of anti-personnel mines, but they are under no such obligation to report or restrict the use of anti-vehicle mines.  There could be thousands of such mines stockpiled by African militaries and rebel groups.  In Libya, tens of thousands of anti-vehicle mines had been stockpiled by the Gaddhafi regime and recently weapons looted from Gaddhafi’s warehouses have been smuggled into Darfur (Bloomberg) demonstrating the possible proliferation of anti-vehicle mines in northern Africa.  

In terms of relative proportions, 20% of all mines in Angola and Ethiopia are believed to be anti-vehicle mines and in Kosovo, half of the 7,200 mines cleared between June 1999 and May 2000 were anti-vehicle mines (German Initiative to Ban Landmines, pdf). According to the 2010 Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor, States Parties had destroyed 45 million stockpiled anti-personnel landmines and another 13.6 million anti-personnel landmines were due for destruction by four parties (Belarus, Greece, Turkey and Ukraine) (Landmine Monitor).  Using the figures from Angola / Ethiopia and Kosovo as the low and high estimates, that would mean that States Parties (not counting those States not Party, i.e., China, Russia and the United States among others) may still possess stockpiles of between 15 and 60 million anti-vehicle mines. 

The Mine Ban Treaty is a laudable document, but the definition of anti-personnel landmines in the Treaty represents a compromise; we need not be bound by such compromises.  It does not matter to the men, women and children killed and injured in Abyei, Unity State and Senafe that the anti-vehicle mines they struck were “legal.”  All that matters is that they were mines.  So, I going to avoid parsing things: a landmine is a landmine is a landmine.  And all future landmines need to be banned and all existing mines need to be destroyed, whether they are “smart,” “non-persistent,” “anti-personnel” or “anti-vehicle.” 

Michael P. Moore, October 11, 2011.

2 Comments on “Anti-tank or Anti-vehicle mines: Perfectly legal and plenty lethal”

  1. trololololol says:


  2. dmfod says:

    The distinction between anti-vehicle mines and anti-personnel mines goes back a lot further than the 1996 ICRC report. The ICBL actually played a major role in initiating it as its initial Call to ban landmines in 1992 specified it was looking for a ban on anti-personnel mines – whereas individual national campagns like the one in Germany have always called for a ban on all landmines including anti-vehicle mines. The two were legally distinguished for the first time in CCW Protocol II as amended in 1996 – preparatory work for which began in 1994.

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