The Imperative to Ban Anti-Vehicle Landmines

Anti-personnel landmines are specifically banned by the Mine Ban Treaty, which 162 countries have agreed to be bound by, and regulated by Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which key Mine Ban Treaty hold-outs China, India, Pakistan, Russia and the United States are party to. The dramatic reduction in casualties from anti-personnel landmines is largely due to these two treaties which were negotiated and came into force in the late 1990s.  However, both treaties specifically avoided regulation or restriction on the production, transfer and use of anti-vehicle (or anti-tank) landmines.  As a result, anti-vehicle landmines probably present a greater humanitarian threat than anti-personnel landmines.

Over the last decade or so, a group of countries, led in large part by the United States, has pushed for a new protocol for the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that would specifically address the humanitarian impact of anti-vehicle mines, or “mines other than anti-personnel mines” (MOTAPM) as they are referred to in the CCW. Recently, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published a report on the humanitarian and development impact of anti-vehicle mines.  The report compiled existing research conducted by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and added in three country case studies to demonstrate the findings reported by the ICBL and the ICRC.  The report showed that the impact of anti-vehicle mines may actually be increasing as post conflict countries like Cambodia develop as well as the fact that new mine usage in South Sudan appears to be entirely anti-vehicle mines.  The report recommended regulating the use of anti-vehicle mines to reduce their humanitarian impact and regulating the production of the mines to ensure detectability.

As of today, the only restriction on the production of anti-vehicle is that they cannot be designed so as to detonate in the presence of a metal detector or similar mine detection equipment. The only regulations on their use is they cannot be used “indiscriminately” or to deliberately target civilians.  There are no regulations on their transfer, except those imposed by individual nations (e.g., the US will not export any “persistent” anti-vehicle mines).  Since 1997, anti-personnel mines have been required to contain a certain amount of metal to ensure detectability by metal detectors or similar devices; anti-vehicle mines have no such requirement.  The Arms Trade Treaty, when it comes into force later this year, will restrict transfer of anti-vehicle mines (and a host of other military equipment and items) to countries in conflict or where gross violations of human rights, including gender-based violence, are occurring.  That’s a good start, but the damage has been done.

When the Gaddhafi regime in Libya fell, hundreds of thousands of stockpiled anti-vehicle mines were looted by various militias.  Other countries, like the Central African Republic, which had eliminated their stockpiles of anti-personnel landmines in accordance with the Mine Ban Treaty have been revealed to have stockpiles of anti-vehicle mines.  In South Sudan and Mali, humanitarian relief is hampered by the presence of newly laid anti-vehicle mines in roadways. But it’s the old anti-vehicle mines that really demonstrate the horror of these weapons. Earlier this year, in Guinea-Bissau which has cleared all of its anti-personnel landmines, a minibus struck an anti-vehicle mine that had been laid three or four decades earlier killing 22 people.  In Egypt, the western desert is polluted with millions on anti-vehicle mines left over from the tank battles of World War II; less than a week ago, eight Egyptians were injured by one such mine.  In Cambodia, as the country develops and tractors are introduced to improve agricultural output, farmers are finding anti-vehicle mines in areas that were known to be free of anti-personnel mines, often with tragic consequences.

The success of the Mine Ban Treaty has meant that the number of people injured and killed by anti-personnel landmines.  But as we see in places like Angola, where deminers find one anti-vehicle mine for every 15 to 20 anti-personnel landmines, the number of incidents involving death or injury from anti-vehicle mines (196) is almost as high as the number from anti-personnel mines (247).  A ban on the use of anti-vehicles mines would complete the promise of the Mine Ban Treaty.

Next month, the parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons will convene for their annual meeting.  One of the major points on the agenda for the CCW is the continued discussion about lethal autonomous weapons (or “killer robots”), but another issue will be the humanitarian impact of anti-vehicle mines.  The governments of the United States and Ireland previously supported attempts to address the dangers poses by anti-vehicle mines and reduce their negative humanitarian impact. The government of Russia has been one of the strongest opponents to any new protocol to the CCW that would limit anti-vehicle mines saying that such weapons have military utility and any protocol would not prevent the “irresponsible use” of anti-vehicle mines by “terrorists” and non-state actors, which are the cause of any civilian injuries.  The Russian government also feels continued discussion about anti-vehicle mines to be “hopeless” because the “humanitarian concerns regarding these mines have not been substantiated.”  The difference in opinions is simple: the Irish have stated that anti-vehicle mines “have clear indiscriminate effects and that these are not adequately addressed in existing IHL [international humanitarian law]” and the regulations imposed by Amended Protocol II of the CCW are insufficient.  The Russians state that “full compliance with the IHL norms” and Amended Protocol II are sufficient to prevent any “’specific’ humanitarian threat” from anti-vehicle mines.

The GICHD-SIPRI report clearly demonstrates that the humanitarian impact of anti-vehicle mines to civilian populations is significant and persists for decades after the conclusion of conflict.  This report can serve as a basis for new discussions about anti-vehicle mines and the need for their regulation.  It is my sincere hope that the US, Ireland and their partners will push for a new protocol that would ban these weapons as the Mine Ban Treaty banned anti-personnel mines.  I would hope that any regulation of anti-vehicle mines would at the very least require the following:

  1. Change production standards of anti-vehicle mines to ensure they are detectable by the same means as anti-personnel mines;
  2. Require the destruction of any anti-vehicle mines, in the ground or in stockpiles that do not meet this detectability standard;
  3. Restrict the trade, transfer and export of anti-vehicle mines to the same standards as described under the Arms Trade Treaty;
  4. Recognize the humanitarian impact outweighs any military utility;
  5. Requires states and deminers to differentiate between anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines in clearance reporting.

Michael P. Moore

November 3, 2014


Why the CCW had to take on the Killer Robot question

This month the Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) met to discuss the operations of the Convention and consider new issues. On the forefront of new issues is the question of Lethal Autonomous Weapons or, colloquially, Killer Robots.  We are not in the realm of science fiction here, either.  Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or, colloquially, drones) are used throughout the world and in many combat situations.  Equipped with missiles, drones have been used in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in recent months to attack and killed terrorists. The US military’s drones are operated out of bases as far away from the theater of war as Arizona, thousands of miles away, by soldiers using video game controllers and looking at large computer monitors.  The monitors display high resolution images captured by cameras on board the drones.  When the pilot identifies a threat, he or she can fire a missile at the threat (if the drone is so equipped) or call in armed air support.

As of today, a drone cannot initiate an attack.  Only the human controllers (“pilots”) can do so.  However, with companies, including seemingly benign ones like Facebook, developing more accurate facial recognition software, there is the possibility that, in the not-too-distant future, a drone could be programmed with a particular individual’s face and set loose in the sky.  The drone would fly around and upon finding its target, be able to attack and kill the target with a missile.  Technologically, we’re probably only a couple of years from being able to do this: pre-program a drone with a pre-authorized kill list, have the drone identify individuals on that list, and then let the drone launch a missile strike.  No warnings, no confirmations.  Just push “start,” sit back and wait for the bad guys to get blown up.

A little more than a year ago, Human Rights Watch published its report, Losing Humanity. The report described the human rights and legal arguments in support of a ban on autonomous weapons.  The report provided the spark for the April 2013 Launch of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of 45 organizations, including the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, Human Rights Watch and other civil society organizations from 22 countries calling for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons.

The argument against killer robots is that they are indiscriminate weapons.  Unlike humans, a killer robot could not make a judgment call about a particular situation or may launch an attack against a target when the target is in the presence of non-combatants.  Or the killer robot could falsely identify a target, killing an innocent.  These are all valid points, but I’m sure programmers would say that a nearly flawless facial recognition software is possible, eliminating the chances of a robot targeting the wrong person.  Also, drones have killed hundreds of non-combatants whilst under the control of human operators; both by mistake and when non-combatants were in the presence of a verified target.  Humans are prone to mistaken identification and could order an attack on an innocent.  Armed drones have been used in “signature” strikes where a human evaluated the actions of individuals viewed through the computer monitor and determined that the individuals on screen were engaged in activities that fit a “signature” of terrorists.  So while the arguments against killer robots are valid, they could, and should, also be made about the current state of drone warfare which I am certain is part of the issue.  By seeking a ban on killer robots, the disarmament community can start to rein in the use of drones, or at least define some limits on their use.

The question of a ban or regulation on lethal autonomous weapons was referred by the United Nations to the CCW as the “appropriate venue” for discussions.  But the CCW was not the only possible venue.  The issue of killer robots was first raised at the United Nations by the Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings within the context of the UN’s Human Rights Council and some states would have been supportive of the issue being taken up by the Council (the Council will be one of the frameworks to address drone warfare more broadly as some, especially those circumstances mentioned above, fall under the definition of extrajudicial or arbitrary killings).  The other alternative would have been to take the issue entirely out of the United Nations framework, just as had been done when the CCW was seen by member states to fail on the issues of landmines and cluster munitions.

The Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines for finding an alternative means to achieve international disarmament, outside of the UN system.  The ICBL and several countries went outside the UN system when the CCW’s Amended Protocol II on landmines was seen by the ICBL and those countries as insufficient protection from the humanitarian harm of landmines.  A decade later when the CCW produced Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War, civil society (represented by most of the ICBL membership) partnered with supportive states to draft, sign and ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions.  Both the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions have more signatories than the corresponding CCW Protocols, making the Protocols increasingly irrelevant.  Why would a country sign and be obligated to a weaker standard when it has already agreed to the higher standards of the Mine Ban Treaty or the Convention on Cluster Munitions?

In addition to the threat of pursuing a ban on killer robots through the Human Rights Council, campaigners suggested that another negotiating framework could have been pursued outside of the UN system had the CCW failed to take up the issue.  The Campaign the Ban Killer Robots, with the support of many of the ICBL’s members, would have been able to partner with supportive states, including France, Egypt and the Holy See (think about how many times you would put those three in a room together), to draft a multi-lateral treaty banning lethal autonomous robots.  That option remains should the CCW fail to achieve a ban in the coming year.

The success of the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions has put significant pressure on the CCW to remain relevant.  Under the leadership of the French delegation, the CCW has agreed to address the emerging issue of killer robots, which maintains the CCW’s position as a relevant and timely negotiating forum, but should talks drag on (and considering the speed with which the issue has developed and achieved a spot on the agenda, even a short delay by the negotiators could be seen as too long), a civil society-led process could be in the offing.

Michael P. Moore

November 27, 2013