Obama Refuses to Sign International Ban on Landmines

What do the following countries have in common?

Bahrain, Burma, China, Iran, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan

If your answer is that they're some of the most corrupt, authoritarian nations in the world you'd be correct. If you associated them with significant human rights abuses, you would also be spot on. If you learned that they also reject the international convention that bans landmines, chances are you would not be surprised. Joining them, however, is none other than the United States.

In a recent press conference, State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly explained that the Obama administration will be continuing the Bush policy of rejecting the ban because "we would not be able to meet our national defense needs, nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign this convention" (see video and transcript below).

Also joining the United States in rejecting the ban, which more than 150 other nations have already signed, is Israel. Both of these countries have also refused to ban cluster munitions (bombs that explode to release hundreds of tiny bomblets, many of which fail to explode on impact).

The reporter that asked the question of Kelly was incorrect however, there are currently 37 countries that are not signatories to the ban.

According to the Landmine Monitor Report of 2009, put out by the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBLM) which won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in 1997, there have been more than 73,000 casualties as the result of land mines in the last decade:

Landmine Monitor has identified at least 73,576 casualties in 119 countries/areas in the past 10 years. The total number of survivors worldwide is not known but is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Their report indicates that 71% of these casualties were civilians and nearly half occurred in just four countries: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Colombia, and Iraq. The United States has been in armed conflict with three of these nations and, in the fourth (Columbia), the U.S. supplies them with more military aid than any country other than Israel ($3 billion since 2005, with $824 million in 2009-10 alone).

Contestants from the controversial Miss Landmine Competition pose for the camera.

However, there is some good news. Last year the United States spent $83 million to fund international landmine action. Unfortunately, at the same time that the U.S. was assisting the victims of these weapons, Landmine Monitor documented that in excess of 10 times that amount was being spent to stockpile even more:

The army had requested a total of $1.1 billion for research activities and eventual production of 1,325 IMS units [a new series of landmines called the Intelligent Munitions System] between fiscal years 2006 and 2013, including $307 million for research and $792 million for production.

In response to this decision by the Obama administration, Jody Williams, ICBLM founder and co-recipient of the 1997 Peace Prize, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times condemning the hypocrisy of Barack Obama to accept the Nobel Peace Prize himself while continuing this shameful policy:

I voted for Obama. I wanted to believe that his soaring rhetoric might actually be turned into a revival for the U.S. on issues of multilateralism, international humanitarian law and, of course, human rights. But at the moment, I'm quite disillusioned.

This administration has seemed all too willing to put aside human rights in the service of political expediency. Its response to Iran's postelection crackdown on nonviolent protest was wishy-washy; its response to the illegal Honduran coup has been weak, ineffective and completely disregarded a huge spike in human rights violations there. Then there was Obama's decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama to avoid upsetting Chinese leaders before his recent visit there.

If human rights are of so little importance to the president and his administration, why would they worry about international humanitarian law? Is that the unspoken reasoning behind land mine policy? Or is it reluctance to ruffle military feathers as Obama today announces what is expected to be a huge increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

The ICBLM has a People's Treaty to sign and urges people to get involved so that those countries who haven't signed onto the ban will be pressured to do so.



QUESTION: What about the U.S. signing on to the land mine ban?

MR. KELLY: Our - we - this Administration undertook a policy review and we decided that our land mine policy remains in effect.


MR. KELLY: Why? Well --

QUESTION: Well, why do - I think we're one of only two nations and Somalia is about to sign it, right? I mean --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: So we're going to be the only nation in the whole world who doesn't --

MR. KELLY: Well --

QUESTION: -- believe in banning land mines. Why is that?

MR. KELLY: Yeah, I'm not sure about that, but we made our policy review and we determined that we would not be able to meet our national defense needs, nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we sign this convention.

QUESTION: Was that made public by - did you make a statement to that effect? Because I never heard it.

MR. KELLY: I don't know the answer to that, Robert. It's possible. We didn't make a statement on it.

QUESTION: So what are you planning to do at the conference, then, when you --

MR. KELLY: Well, we're there as an observer. I mean, clearly, we have - as a global provider of security, we have an interest in the discussions there. But we will be there as an observer, obviously, because we haven't signed the convention, nor do we plan to sign the convention.

QUESTION: So that's official? The review is finished and we - and the U.S. will not sign the convention?

MR. KELLY: The policy review resulted in a recommendation to maintain the policy towards land mines, towards the convention. That was --

QUESTION: When was that decision made?

MR. KELLY: I don't have that information, Indira. I'm not sure when it was done.


MR. KELLY: Fairly recently, I think, though.

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I think that a few points are in order.

1. The decision to not sign the treaty was originally made by the Clinton Administration, and the reason was that other nations refused a Korean DMZ exception to the use of land mines. The Korean DMZ offers unique circumstances--low risk of civilian casualties, and a very real military threat, and huge military need with very little practical alternatives. (The civilian casualties caused by a North Korean invasion would be several orders of magnitude greater than that caused by landmines.) Sadly, the international community insisted on a purist approach. This is still a reality for the Obama Administration.

2. While the US has not signed the Ottaw Treaty, it has agreed to an amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional weapons, which prohibits the use of non-detectable anti-personnel mines and their transfer; prohibits the use of non-self-destructing and non-self-deactivating mines outside fenced, monitored and marked areas; broadens obligations of protection in favour of peacekeeping and other missions of the United Nations and its agencies; requires States to enforce compliance with its provisions within their jurisdiction; and calls for penal sanctions in case of violation.

3. The Intelligent Munitiion program you cite does not even qaulity as a land mine under the meaning of the Ottawa Treaty since it requires action by a human being before being exploded.

I'm not sure where you're getting your information, but there are a couple of key errors in what you just cited.

Clinton set the objective of joining the treaty in 2006 but, before that would take effect, the Bush administration announced that they would not accede.

The Intelligent Munition System is an attempt to skirt the moratorium that US law has placed on antipersonnel landmines. But, according to Defense Update, the technology is used and operated in the same way that traditional landmines are:

The munitions will use mature Skeet based scatterable mine warhead technology providing wide area top attack effects against vehicles and fragmenting grenade lethality against dismounted personnel. It will be interoperable with the Spider antipersonnel landmine system.

By employing this technology, and signing onto Protocol II, the US is merely trying to continue their use of these weapons under the guise of following international humanitarian law. Of course, the US has also signed onto Protocol III which bans the use of incendiary weapons. Nevertheless, the US frequently used white phosphorus in Iraq and then lied about it when its use was exposed.

I am no fan of the Bush Administration so won't defend anything that was done between 2001-2009.
There is a long list of treay obligations it ignored.

From what I know of the IMS, it is being specificly designed not to be a mine within the meaning of the Ottawa treaty as a result of congressional concerns. It does this by imposing a human being in the decision to explode, and therefore is not soley "exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person" as required by the Treaty. (In other words, mere proximity is not enough to explode the device--a human being needs to be involved):

"This is a weapons program that combines three different weapons systems, including the so-called âAntipersonnel Landmine-Alternativeâ (APL-A). It is, as a point of departure, designed not to fall within the definition of an antipersonnel landmine in Article 2 (1) of the Convention. The system consists of a number of explosive charges that may be detonated by an operator who has been alerted of the presence of a person because of the personâs contact with a sensor. This system is called âman-in-the-loopâ, which indicates that it is an operator and not the target that activates the explosive charge.

Despite the fact that the US is not a party to the Landmine Convention, there has for several years been a domestic political debate on the countryâs adaptation to its standards. In a report [US House of Representatives, Report 107-732] from the US House of Representatives from 2002 it is stated: âThe conferees direct that the Army clearly define the requirements for a next generation intelligent minefields and ensure compliance with the Ottawa Convention, and report back to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees with detailed plans for such a system.â

Source: Globel Security

While the Clinton Administration set the goal of joining the treaty in 2006, it was always with the understanding that our concersn about use in the Korean DMV would be addressed in the Treaty. These concerns have yet to be addressed, and the Obama Administration is appropriately being cautious in addressing the treaty while the very real concerns about the necessity of use of the landmines in the Korea DMV remain. (I was in the Pentagon during the critical years this issue was discussed during the Clinton Administration.)

Do you really think anyone seriously considers that North Korea would invade the South? While Kim Jong-Il may be insane, the military leadership that advises him understands that any invasion would result in their complete and utter destruction. This is an extremely flimsy basis upon which to disregard the vast majority of the international community. Signing onto Protocol II and rejecting Ottawa is the same as creating an "alternative" climate change treaty as Bush suggested rather than sign onto Kyoto.

As for the Intelligent Munition System, Human Rights Watch has documented that the Pentagon has requested this weapon also be designed to be triggered by the victim, effectively making it identical to existing landmines:

In the words of the Pentagon, âOther operating modes allow Spider munitions to function autonomously without Man-in-the-Loop control (i.e. target activation), if necessary, to respond to the combat environment; the operator can regain control of the munitions at any time.â

This has been confirmed by the government of Norway and they recommended that this would make the IMS fall under the category outlined in the Convention prohibiting such weapons:

The Advisory Council finds that all weapon systems that are designed in such a manner that explosive charges are detonated by the presence, proximity or contact of a person, will fall within the definition of an antipersonnel land mine as laid down in Article 2 of the Convention. This means that if the weapons systems in question are going to be equipped with â battlefield overrideâ features, or in other ways designed to circumvent the âman-in-the-loopâ feature, they will fall within the scope of the prohibition in the Convention.

In a word--yes. Without an effective deterrent, there is a significant risk that North Korea would take military action against the South, which is why every Administration since 1950 has kept a very robust U.S. military presence in South Korea. The reason why Kim Jong-Il's "military leadership that advises him understands that any invasion would result in their complete and utter destruction" is because we have such a robust military defense in South Korea.

To be clear, it may well be that new technology either has (or soon will) make our reliance on landmines in Korea no longer necessary. That was certainly our hope in 2000, but the Obama Administration is wisely reviewing the issue carefully before proceeding with a commitment to sign the treaty. (And, by the way, your original post is a bit dated--the Administration clarified soon after the DOS press conference that the review is still ongoing and that no final decision had yet been made). In the meantime we have moved our arsenal of mines to ones that are non-persistant (i.e., they are only operable for a short time) and detectable, and therefore have significantly reduced our risk of civilian casualties. In other words, the US mine inventory is no longer part of the most significant reason why we have a treaty in the first place.

Do you really think anyone seriously considers that North Korea would invade the South?

If by "anyone" you include most of South Korea, yes; unless all those tank traps, revetments, and fortifications on the roads leading from the DMZ southward are figments of the imagination.

Nearly all the 37 nations on the no-sign list (with two having signed but not yet ratified) are either de facto dictatorships or imperialists (or dependents of empires).

But what's Finland's excuse?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

The rather massive South Korean military, with its superior size and and equipment compared to the North Koreans, does most of the deterring, particularly with US forces bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"But what's Finland's excuse?"

Well, Finland, like Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are neighbors of the rather large, newly aggressive Russian Federation. Unlike Norway, none of these states are members of NATO and are thus solely responsible for their own defense. Unable to sustaining a military capable on par with the Russians, they have to do it cheaply. Landmines, combined with artillery, guerrilla warfare, and sniping can bog down an invasion force, making it to costly to continue, at least that is the working theory, I am not aware of anyone trying it. Vietnam and states around China have the same problem with China. I am guessing Cuba feels the same way toward the United States.

Just because landmines are unsavory weapons and rather poorly used does not mean they are not without legitimate uses.