Since 1997, 164 countries have signed the Ottawa Convention that bans the use, manufacture and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines.
The United States isn’t among them. Neither are Russia, China and India. The U.S. had been signalling its intention to restore the landmine ban formally abandoned by the Donald Trump administration. It seems to be slow-walking that effort now.
Despite superpower reluctance to get on board, the convention is widely seen as one of the more successful arms control treaties. It has succeeded in creating a real stigma around the deployment of landmines and has allowed for demining operations in vast areas once too dangerous to walk on.
The only nation known to have planted mines in the past year is Myanmar. (Non-state actors have also used them in places such as Syria and Colombia.) And while the U.S. held back from signing the convention — citing, among other things, the tactical need for landmines to defend South Korea’s northern border — it otherwise adhered to the treaty in practice.
A policy directive issued by President Barack Obama largely prohibited the usage, production, stockpiling and transport of anti-personnel landmines outside the Korean peninsula. No American landmine has been deployed in any other conflict zone since the First Gulf War in 1991.
In fact, the U.S. appeared on track to join the other Ottawa Convention signatories under President Obama.
In 2014, at the third review of the Ottawa Convention in Maputo, Mozambique, the U.S. delegation pledged “U.S. commitment to the spirit and humanitarian aims of the Ottawa Convention … the United States is diligently pursuing solutions that would be compliant with and that would ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention.”
“For decades now the United States has been the world’s leading contributor to demining efforts,” said Jeff Abramson, senior fellow for conventional arms at the Arms Control Association in Washington DC.
“So the United States clearly recognizes the harm caused by landmines and has been trying to clear them around the world, but has not joined the treaty.”
Trump’s landmine policy called ‘barbaric’
Hawks in President Trump’s Pentagon were not keen on binding international treaties that place limits on U.S. arsenals.
In January 2020, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that the U.S. was rescinding Obama’s policy on landmines.
“Landmines are one of very many other important tools that our commanders need to have available to them on the battlefield, to shape the battlefield and to protect our forces,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want to make sure that we have all the tools in our toolkit that are legally available and are effective to ensure our success.”
Contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination were swift to condemn the change at the time. Elizabeth Warren called the decision “abhorrent” while her Senate colleague Bernie Sanders described it as “barbaric” and “a giveaway to the military industrial complex.”
And Joe Biden weighed in. “The Trump administration’s reversal of years of considered decisions by Democratic and Republican presidents to curtail the use of landmines,” Biden said in a media statement, “is another reckless act by a president ill-suited to serve as commander-in-chief.
“It will put more civilians at risk of being injured by unexploded mines, and is unnecessary from a military perspective. As president, I will promptly roll back this deeply misguided decision.”
No rollback so far
That’s why many were surprised when, on April 6, 2021, the Biden administration announced it was not rolling back the Trump policy after all.
Pentagon spokesperson Mike Holland almost seemed to channel the spirit of Mark Esper in his choice of words.
“Landmines, including anti-personnel mines, remain a vital tool in conventional warfare that the United States military cannot responsibly forgo,” he said.
“Withholding a capability that would give our ground forces the ability to deny terrain temporarily and therefore shape an enemy’s movement to our benefit irresponsibly risks American lives.”
Two days later, after something of an outcry, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said “President Biden has been clear that he intends to roll back this policy, and our administration has begun a policy review to do just that.”
But while that review continues, the Trump policy stands.
Despite pressure from experts and advocates, and from a bipartisan coalition of U.S. lawmakers, there has been no movement to date on banning the use of landmines by American forces. No time limit has been placed on the Biden administration’s review of the policy.
“We were fully expecting that President Biden would at least move back to the Obama-era policy, and we were hopeful that he would move forward to actually signing the treaty,” said Abramson. “We’re extremely disappointed.”
He said it’s not really clear where the pressure is coming from to keep landmines in the Pentagon’s “toolkit.”
“There’s always voices within any military that say ‘we need a weapon,'” he said. “This is why you have a civilian in charge of any democratically-elected country’s military.
“Fortunately, the new policy has not led the U.S. to use any landmines. They still have not produced any landmines that would be in violation of the treaty. So they continue to study. There are concerns that they might move forward in the next few years with the acquisition of weapons, but there’s still time for President Biden to reverse course and get back to the treaty and ban the use of these weapons.”
Deaths and injuries from landmines dropped substantially in the years after the Ottawa Convention was signed. Since 2013, however, landmine casualties have been on the rise again, driven partly by the conflict in Syria.
Last year, over 7,000 civilians were killed or injured by anti-personnel mines. Typically, children account for over half of all victims.
But the Ottawa Convention continues to produce positive results. One of its requirements is that countries take responsibility for the mines they have buried in the past. Last year, the U.K. and Chile became the latest countries to formally notify that they’d finished mine clearance projects.
Abramson said the danger posed by the Biden administration’s delay isn’t that countries will withdraw from the treaty. He said the real risk is that countries which have not signed but have followed the treaty in practice will feel less pressure to do so.
“It will become harder and harder to stigmatize their use,” he said. “So you could see greater use.”