The United States’s policy on landmines might be about to change

Then again, it may not.  There is a buzz around Washington and all signs point to an imminent announcement on the Obama Administration’s review of the current landmine policy which was put into place 10 years ago this month.  At one time, the United States was the undisputed leader in the movement to ban anti-personnel landmines.  In 1992, thanks to the leadership of Senator Patrick Leahy, the United States passed the first ever export  ban on landmines. In 1994, President Bill Clinton was one of, if not the first head of state to call for a permanent end to the use of landmines when he made the following statement at the United Nations General Assembly:

And today I am proposing a first step toward the eventual elimination of a less visible but still deadly threat: the world’s 85 million antipersonnel land mines, one for every 50 people on the face of the Earth. I ask all nations to join with us and conclude an agreement to reduce the number and availability of those mines. Ridding the world of those often hidden weapons will help to save the lives of tens of thousands of men and women and innocent children in the years to come.

In 1995, Belgium and Norway banned the use, production, trade and stockpiling of landmines and at that point, US leadership on the landmine issue began to slip.   While the US was instrumental in writing and passing the Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons which restricted the use of some types of landmines, the US did not sign the Ottawa or Mine Ban Treaty which was signed by 89 countries in 1997 and has been ratified or acceded to by 161 nations to date.  In 1998, the United States announced it would join the Ottawa Treaty in 2006 if a “suitable alternative” to anti-personnel landmines could be developed.  The current 2004 landmine policy issued by the George W. Bush administration did not pledge to join the Ottawa Treaty at any point.

In a recent piece, the Arms Control Association notes that the United States is the only member of NATO and with the exception of Cuba, the only country in the Western Hemisphere to not be a party to the Ottawa Treaty.  Last November, the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines issued a press release noting that 16,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines since the Obama Administration launched its policy review. Let me go one further on both of these points.  If the US were to sign the Ottawa Treaty, it is likely that others, specifically Georgia and Cuba, will follow suit.  Georgia and Cuba both maintain landmine stockpiles due to the US’s insistence that they might be necessary; if the US no longer feels that landmines might be necessary, then the arguments of Georgia and Cuba to keep them disappears.  Other countries’ arguments may similarly collapse if the US were to join the Ottawa Treaty.

As for the count of 16,000 landmine casualties since the start of the Obama Administration policy review, think about this: in 1992 the United States first recognized the humanitarian threat of landmines and responded by banning their export.  In those 22 years, an estimated 230,000 people were killed or injured by landmines.  That’s more than the combined casualties for Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Atomic Archive; Yale Law School).  One of President Obama’s ambitions is to rid the world of nuclear weapons.  Perhaps he should first finish the work started more than two decades ago and help eliminate the weapon that’s caused more casualties than all atomic and nuclear weapons.

Michael P. Moore

February 10, 2014

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2 Comments on “The United States’s policy on landmines might be about to change”

  1. James Cobey says:

    Do we have 67 votes in the Senate?? Jim Cobey

    • Short answer: probably, but some work will be needed.

      Long answer: In 2010, Senator Leahy released a letter cosigned by 67 of his colleagues (link here: http://www.leahy.senate.gov/press/the-way-forward-on-anti-personnel-landmines). Since then, there has been a lot of turnover in the Senate, but 43 of the 68 signers are still in the Senate and two new Senators supported the Treaty when they were in Congress. That gets us to 45. There are 34 other Senators, elected since 2010, who could be contacted and asked to support the Treaty. Also, I think a few of the 23 who did not sign the 2010 letter and are still in the Senate may be convinced to support the Treaty this time around. I’m confident it’s possible, but we need the Administration to first make up its mind about whether or not it will send the Treaty to the Senate for advice and consent.


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