The Mine Ban Treaty

Key Points

  • Landmines are an indiscriminate and inhumane weapon whose principal victims are unarmed men, women, and children. During the 1990s, an estimated 26,000 people were killed or maimed by mines every year.
  • The Mine Ban Treaty, signed by over two-thirds of the world’s nations, prohibits use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of antipersonnel mines.
  • The U.S. initially ignored the treaty process and then proposed five treaty-weakening amendments that were rejected by treaty participants.

The signing of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Antipersonnel Mines and on Their Destruction in Ottawa, Canada, in December 1997, represents a great arms control and human rights triumph. The Mine Ban Treaty was the product of an unprecedented collaboration between over 1,000 nongovernmental groups (NGOs) and governments committed to outlawing a weapon whose principal victims are unarmed men, women, and children. The founding organizations of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and its coordinator, Jody Williams, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

Antipersonnel landmines lie scattered by the millions in Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries. In the mid-1990s, the State Department estimated that landmines were killing or maiming over 26,000 victims a year. These small, cheap explosives (costing as little as $5 apiece) are detonated not by command but by contact, making them uniquely indiscriminate. And, unlike any other weapon, landmines go on killing for decades after peace treaties have been signed and soldiers demobilized.

Initially, landmine activists lobbied governments to ban the weapon at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) in April 1996. But standard UN diplomatic rules governing the CCW treaty process, including the requirement that states reach a consensus, permitted ban opponents such as India and China to water down the protocol to a lowest common denominator that imposed virtually no effective constraints on the weapon’s use.

When ban activists came away empty-handed from the CCW, it became clear that following the UN’s conventional rules for arms control treaties was not working. With Canada taking the lead, antimine governments called for a radically different approach. At an October 1996 meeting of governments and NGOs in Ottawa, the Canadians invited like-minded states to create a treaty that actually banned landmines and to return in December 1997 to sign a comprehensive mine ban treaty. This strategy required governments to publicly commit to a clear choice.

And choose they did, with every subsequent preparatory meeting throughout the year attracting dozens of new participants. The United States, however, largely ignored these deliberations. Not until the final treaty-drafting session in September 1997 in Oslo did Clinton administration officials attempt to enter the negotiations by peddling five treaty-weakening amendments, insisting that their entire package be accepted as the price of an American signature. The treaty participants summarily rejected the U.S. proposal, which included: 1) a geographic exception for Korea, 2) a waiver for American “mixed mine” systems, 3) an optional nine-year delay period, 4) a treaty opt-out clause, and 5) a provision permitting countries to sign with reservations.

The result of the Oslo negotiations was a strong treaty that, upon entering into force in March 1999, banned the use of antipersonnel mines, required that stockpiles be destroyed within four years, and stipulated that land be cleared of antipersonnel mines within ten years. It also obliges nations and the international community to assist landmine survivors.

The treaty does, however, include one loophole that was strongly opposed by the ICBL: neither antitank mines nor antihandling devices (explosives designed to prevent disabling of antitank mines) are banned. Seizing on this exception, U.S. officials have repeatedly complained that other states exempted their dangerous antitank mines—protected by antihandling devices (instead of antipersonnel mines)—while purposefully excluding safer U.S. mixed mine systems. Mine ban campaigners disagree. The treaty permits antitank mines with antihandling devices, but only if they explode from an intentional act (e.g., an enemy soldier’s attempt to tamper or remove them). If they explode from an unintentional act, they are considered antipersonnel mines and are therefore banned. However, the ban treaty signatories have yet to clarify precisely what constitutes an intentional or unintentional act or which antitank mines and/or antihandling devices are permissible.

By mid-2000, 137 countries—more than two-thirds of the world’s nations—had signed the Mine Ban Treaty, including every country in the Western Hemisphere (except the U.S. and Cuba), all of NATO (except the U.S. and Turkey), and forty-plus African countries. The treaty entered into force with breathtaking speed, and it continues to gather new adherents. But despite the mine ban movement’s extraordinary success in universalizing the treaty, a number of countries continue to stand outside it, including Russia, China, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the United States.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • The U.S. lags far behind much of the world, with a policy that lets the Pentagon set the pace for finding alternatives.
  • The Clinton administration has set 2006 as the expected date for the U.S. to sign the treaty, but only if the Pentagon finds alternatives to landmines.
  • Most proposed U.S. alternatives will not be treaty compliant and thus will not bring the U.S. closer to signing.

U.S. officials insist that there are two major impediments to the U.S. joining the Mine Ban Treaty. The first is Korea, where the Pentagon contends that it must maintain the option to disperse antipersonnel landmines if North Korean troops advance on the South. Pentagon planners argue that planted mines are needed to channel enemy tanks and soldiers into corridors where they can be attacked. Pentagon fidelity to landmines for the Korean theater appears undiminished, despite the fact that the former U.S. commander in Korea, General James Hollingsworth, disputes their military utility, and the unity talks between North and South Korea diminish the likelihood of military conflict.

The U.S. says a second obstacle is that the treaty bans “mixed mines,” i.e. antitank mines that are delivered in a canister along with antipersonnel landmines. The Pentagon insists that, to date, there is no replacement for such mixed mines, and that converting the arsenal or stripping the antipersonnel mines from the antitank mines would be prohibitively expensive.

More broadly, Pentagon planners argue that in conflict zones, landmines serve a number of tactical purposes: they safeguard troop positions and camps, channel enemy soldiers into a line of fire, and generally impede the forward motion of enemy troops. But in reality, antipersonnel landmines are not an important part of current military doctrine. American mixed mines were not used in Kosovo, for example, even though stopping enemy tanks was an important consideration.

U.S. policy on antipersonnel landmines was articulated by National Security Advisor Sandy Berger in a May 1998 letter and, a month later, in a classified Presidential Decision Directive. In these documents, the Clinton administration stated that by 2003 the U.S. would cease use of antipersonnel mines—except in Korea and except for mixed mines. By the year 2006, if “alternatives” have been found, the U.S. has pledged to cease use of all antipersonnel mines and to sign the treaty.

Although such conditionality was a grave disappointment to mine ban campaigners, the 1998 presidential directive did represent a U.S. shift toward support—in principle—for the treaty. This positive development was due largely to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who had for months pressured the White House and the Pentagon.

U.S. policy remains deeply problematic, because it conditions joining the treaty to the Pentagon’s finding and fielding alternatives by the 2006 date. By refusing to task the Pentagon with a fixed date by which the U.S. must abandon all use of antipersonnel mines, this policy allows the Pentagon to set the pace for developing substitutes for a weapon it does not want to relinquish. There is thus a profound disincentive for finding and fielding alternatives: so long as no alternatives exist, the U.S. can continue to produce and use antipersonnel landmines.

Not surprisingly, the Pentagon has moved at a snail’s pace. For the first two years, it appears the Pentagon did almost nothing to develop alternatives. Moreover, the Pentagon is focused upon finding a substitute weapon for landmines, despite the fact that alternatives could take many forms. As a Human Rights Watch/Arms Project report states, “Non-material solutions to compensate for the removal of antipersonnel landmines from the U.S. inventory could include changing tactics and doctrine, increasing the number of other weapons systems, or retrofitting existing mine systems to remove the antipersonnel mine components.”

Recently the Pentagon has accelerated its search for material alternatives, but some of the technologies that appear closest to fruition are not compliant with the treaty. For example, one alternative to “dumb” mines that do not self-destruct is the so-called “man-in-the-loop.” This consists of a munition similar to an M16 mine, and it can be command-detonated once the target has been identified as a combatant. However, the device could include a “battlefield override” feature. This would, in essence, take the man out of the loop and automatically detonate the minefield if the command center is overrun by enemy soldiers. Such a feature would make the system indiscriminate and thus illegal under the treaty. Additionally, the Pentagon has requested $47.7 million to procure a new mixed, antitank mine system, the RADAM, that contains antipersonnel landmines. RADAM would also be prohibited by the treaty. The U.S. government will make a final decision on RADAM in 2001.

There are further problems. America’s planned production of a high-tech version of antipersonnel mines (the RADAM system) encourages other countries to continue producing and using antipersonnel mines. The treaty does not just ban poor nations’ weapons, it bans all antipersonnel landmines, including America’s “smart” ones. By insisting that the cheap “dumb” mines used by others must be banned while exempting its own antipersonnel mines, the U.S. erodes the norm against them all. For the treaty to work, it is vitally important that the strongest countries give up their landmines along with the weakest.

The U.S. failure to join the treaty prevents it from becoming truly universal, providing comfort and cover to countries that are likely to use the weapon. Russia laid thousands of dumb mines in Chechnya during its spring 2000 bloody assault on the province, causing extensive civilian casualties. In 1999, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s forces did the same in Kosovo.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • President Clinton should sign the Mine Ban Treaty before leaving office.
  • The U.S. should permanently ban production of landmines, and Congress should enact a law making permanent the president’s declared ban on landmine exports.
  • The Pentagon should be instructed to change its war plans, doctrine, and training so as to conduct future combat without using antipersonnel mines.

The U.S. refusal to join the Mine Ban Treaty has not prevented most nations of the world from banning a grossly indiscriminate weapon of war. This treaty is already having an enormous impact on curbing the export and use of mines, encouraging destruction of mine stockpiles, mandating demining efforts, and expanding survivor assistance around the world. Indeed, the very fact that, despite American objections, other countries negotiated a strong treaty with wide international support is inspiring in its own right. This example was not lost on those countries that used the same strategies to negotiate the International Criminal Court (see FPIF, International Criminal Court, vol. 3, no. 4, April 1998), again over American objections.

But lack of U.S. support has been extremely costly, both to American prestige and leadership, and to the treaty’s authority. By insisting that antipersonnel landmines be retained in the arsenal of the world’s greatest military power, the U.S. signals to every other country that the weapon’s military utility outweighs its humanitarian costs. Given America’s overwhelming military superiority, there is no theater of conflict—including Korea—that justifies its reticence to sign the ban treaty. U.S. support for the treaty would go a long way toward strengthening the taboo against the use of landmines and persuading other holdouts to sign on.

The U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines (USCBL), which includes over 400 human rights, disarmament, religious, medical, veterans, development, and humanitarian organizations, has called upon President Clinton to exercise his authority as both the president and the commander-in-chief, to announce that the U.S. is prepared to join the Mine Ban Treaty and to send it to the Senate for ratification. Short of joining the treaty before leaving office, the president could take a number of steps in the right direction. Human Rights Watch, echoed by the USCBL, has called upon the executive branch:

  1. to set a specific date—with concrete deadlines and milestones, not merely a goal or objective—for the Department of Defense to realize the president’s commitment to join the treaty.
  2. to instruct the Pentagon to begin the process of making the changes in its war plans, doctrine, training, and manuals necessary for conducting future combat without using antipersonnel mines and to establish plans, procedures, and timetables for the destruction of all antipersonnel landmines.
  3. to declare a ban (or an indefinite moratorium) on the production of antipersonnel landmines and to ask Congress to enact a law making permanent the president’s declared ban on exports of antipersonnel landmines.
  4. to instruct the Defense Department to immediately withdraw all U.S. stockpiles of antipersonnel mines from countries that have signed the Mine Ban Treaty and to commit the U.S. to eschew the use of antipersonnel mines in joint operations with states that have signed the Mine Ban Treaty.
  5. to accelerate—and set a certain date for—the Pentagon’s search for alternatives and to ensure that they be treaty compliant.
  6. to eliminate the RADAM program, i.e., the new mixed mine system that packages U.S. antitank mines with antipersonnel landmines.

Notwithstanding his disappointing performance on the treaty, it is well-known that President Clinton loathes the weapon and would like to sign the treaty if the Pentagon would let him. During Clinton’s presidency, the U.S. has contributed over $300 million for demining, making America the largest contributor to mine clearance in the world.

The U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines would like to see a much larger percentage of U.S. government funds going to nongovernmental organizations (as opposed to the Defense Department) for humanitarian demining. In addition, humanitarian assistance for survivors (including not just prosthetics but also community reintegration and jobs for landmine survivors and their families, land title to demined areas, and medical and social services) should be expanded considerably.

As far back as 1994, Clinton declared a permanent ban on the export of antipersonnel mines, and the U.S. has since destroyed three-fourths of its inventory of dumb mines. A respectable legacy on antipersonnel landmines requires more, however. President Clinton can legitimately claim to be a leader in eliminating this cruel and indiscriminate weapon from the earth if he takes action to move the U.S. significantly closer to signing the treaty.

Holly Burkhalter is the coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines and the advocacy director of Physicians for Human Rights in Washington, DC.