By Nils Holst, Policy Intern
In a bid to have the United States join a global landmine ban, a group of Members of Congress released a letter to President Joe Biden last month calling on him to bar the U.S. military from continuing to use anti-personnel landmines, highlighting more than two decades of foot-dragging by Democratic and Republican administrations to end the use of the controversial weapon.
On June 22, 21 bipartisan Members of Congress sent a letter to President Biden urging him to overturn a 2020 decision by the Trump administration allowing the U.S. military to resume development, production and deployment of anti-personnel landmines anywhere in the world. The Trump policy also delegated the decision to use landmines to combatant commanders, without needing prior approval from the president or secretary of defense.
The Trump policy replaced an earlier decision by the Obama administration in 2014, which banned the United States from producing or acquiring anti-personnel landmines, and prohibited U.S. troops from deploying them except on the Korean Peninsula.
The letter also recommended Biden sign the Mine Ban Treaty, a 1997 agreement also known as the Ottawa Convention signed by more than 80% of the world’s countries (although not by the United States, China, India, Russia and other major powers) to end the production and use of anti-personnel landmines. Although it contributes more toward international demining efforts than any other country, the United States still has not signed the treaty, officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction. The letter recommended Biden accede to the treaty by the end of his term in 2024, giving the Pentagon three years to plan for the transition. Biden said he supports repealing the Trump policy and curtailing the United States’ landmine use. So what’s the delay?
What are the arguments?
U.S. officials have offered various explanations over the years about why the United States has refused to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. In justifying Trump’s 2020 decision, the Department of Defense claimed anti-personnel landmines were a “vital tool” in conventional warfare. Landmine supporters point out that China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran also haven’t signed the Mine Ban Treaty, and argue that acceding to the agreement would put U.S. troops at a disadvantage in a hypothetical matchup.
Landmine opponents dispute these claims, arguing that landmines are militarily ineffective, constrain the maneuverability of U.S. forces, and inflict casualties on friendly troops. A former Marine Corps commandant commented that landmines kill more American soldiers than enemy soldiers, and a Red Cross study found that landmines frequently became more of a military liability than an asset. In fact, with the exception of a single mine laid by a retreating special forces team in 2002, anti-personnel landmines haven’t been used by the U.S. military since the Gulf War, undercutting arguments that they are a vital tool for conventional warfare. Classifying anti-personnel landmines as an indispensable part of the conventional arsenal has more to do with a lack of political pressure to develop alternatives, landmine opponents say, than the intrinsic military value of the weapon. The logic that the United States should use anti-personnel landmines because China and Russia do is equally flawed – just because potential adversaries reserve the right to use anti-personnel landmines doesn’t make them any more militarily effective for U.S. forces.
Landmine opponents also say anti-personnel mines disproportionately impact civilians, and negatively impact the community even long after the conflict has ended. A leading advocacy group recorded more than 5,500 mine-related casualties worldwide in 2019. About 80% of the victims were civilians, and nearly half of the civilian casualties were children. Landmines slow economic growth by cutting off civilians from arable land, markets and infrastructure, and impose an additional financial burden on the families of landmine victims, who will need extensive medical care assuming they survive the initial blast, and have reduced earning potential for the rest of their lives.
Partially because of their impact on civilians, many people also believe anti-personnel landmines violate the Geneva Conventions, or international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war.
“We should adhere to the Mine Ban Treaty,” said retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, Jr, a former Army officer and landmine ban advocate. “[Anti-personnel landmine] use is, in my view, a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions… there are other ways you can accomplish the military purposes of anti-personnel landmines; other weapons and other tactics.”
Defending South Korea from a possible invasion through the Demilitarized Zone has been cited as another reason for the United States declining to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. The Clinton administration requested the treaty’s sponsors include some flexibility for the Korean case; when that was rejected the administration decided not to sign. Landmine opponents say South Korea already owns all the landmines in the DMZ, so the United States acceding to the treaty wouldn’t affect the military situation. Although many believe mines are still necessary, Korea should not stand in the way of returning to a no-use policy.
Finally, landmine supporters argue a U.S. policy banning anti-personnel landmines won’t help much, as the vast majority of landmines in the world are outside U.S. control. This is true – the United States has a stockpile of about three million landmines, compared to Russia’s 26.5 million and an estimated 50 million stockpiled globally. Nonetheless, a U.S. ban would retire an ineffective and dangerous weapon from the military’s arsenal, reinforce the United States’ commitment to human rights around the world, and pressure other countries to also end their use of anti-personnel landmines.
The Pentagon announced in April that the Trump policy would remain on the books until the department finished a review of the 2020 decision. Biden promised to roll back the Trump policy “promptly” on the campaign trail, but the administration has so far prioritized different issues. The delay has frustrated anti-landmine legislators and advocacy groups, who criticized Biden earlier this year for failing to act.
As president, Biden could unilaterally sign the Mine Ban Treaty and bring the United States in accordance with international law. In order for the treaty stipulations to become legally binding however, it must be approved for ratification by a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Finding 17 Republicans to sign on is unlikely given the current political climate, although if Pentagon officials came out against landmines it would help Biden’s case. Even without Senate approval, signing the Mine Ban Treaty would signal to the world that the United States intends to get out of the anti-personnel landmine business for good and encourage others to also end their use of this dangerous, ineffective and unnecessary weapon.
“As noted in the Congressional letter, the U.S. military hasn’t used anti-personnel landmines in combat since 1991,” said Gard. “We’ve made it this long without them…we don’t need them.”