The United States remains one of the few countries in the world which has still not signed the 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty despite calls from groups as diverse as human rights activists and some of the highest-ranking US military officials of the past two decades.
The Obama administration initiated a review US landmine policy in late 2009. This was not groundbreaking; the administrations of both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also announced 'review's of US landmine policy, in the face growing aversion to this World-War one-era, indiscriminate weapon which has killed and maimed at least tens of thousands of civilians. In each successive 'review', compromise policies have been offered with, to this day, the refusal to sign the treaty.
President Obama has now received letters from 68 Senators, nearly 100 leaders of prominent U.S. nongovernmental organizations, key NATO allies, retired senior US military officers, and 16 Nobel Peace Prize recipients including Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel, urging him to sign the treaty.
The 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty (also called the "Ottawa Treaty") was a landmark accomplishment. For the first time in history, a coalition of governments and non-governmental civil institutions joined together to ban a conventional weapon that had been used by virtually every fighting force in the world for decades. Today, 159 nations are party to the treaty - one of the most successful civil-society bodies of international law ever constructed. Every NATO nation is a party to the ban.
Every nation in the Western Hemisphere has joined the treaty as well - except two: The US and Cuba. (Among the paranoid, there may be some who argue that landmines are a necessary weapon for the defense of coastal Florida from a pending Cuban army land invasion.)
Obama is not the first U.S. President to stand apart from the huge majority of nations who have already joined together to ban this World War I - era weapon of indiscriminate terror. That distinction begins with President Clinton, who deferred the decision through his entire two-term Presidency, ultimately leaving a 'pledge' that the U.S. would sign in 2006 (conveniently, after he would leave office). According to script, of course, the 2004 the Bush administration announced it would not honor the Clinton pledge and refused to sign the treaty.
For the rest of the world, the Mine Ban Treaty entered into force on March 1, 1999, just 15 months after it was negotiated - the shortest time ever for a multilateral treaty.
A 2010 statement from Human Rights Watch (HRW) said "The US already follows most of the key provisions in the Mine Ban Treaty" and "has not used antipersonnel landmines in two decades. They are a deadly relic of the past and should never be used again" said Steve Goose, the arms director at HRW.
Landmines were first widely used in World War II. In the 1990's, as awareness grew about the weapon's effect on civilians, it's military utility also started to be widely challenged, including from military experts.
In 1996 former and active military personnel from 19 countries participated in an independent study commissioned by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and concluded that mines were of “limited military utility”.
In April 1996, a group of highly decorated retired U.S. generals and admirals published an open letter to President Clinton calling on the U.S. to ban landmines. Signatories included Persian Gulf Commander General Norman Schwarzkopf, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General David Jones, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe Johan Galvin, and Lt. General James Hollingsworth, the former Commander of U.S. forces in Korea. The Generals stated "Given the wide range of weaponry available to military forces today, anti-personnel land mines are not essential.
Contrary to these military experts, however, the political appointees of the Obama administration, in words nearly identical to those from both the Bush and Clinton administrations prior, maintain that landmines are a military necessity. In 2004 the State Department (under Bush) said "The Ottawa Convention would prohibit U.S. forces from employing munitions that those forces might need for carrying out their defense commitments." A fact sheet issued by the State Department then said "No other weapon exists that provides all the capabilities provided by landmines.
Under Obama, the defense of these World-War I-era weapons have continued, using similarly vague if hyperbolic language - from non-military US branches of government. In 2009, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said "...we would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we signed this convention," he said.
Nobel laureate Jody Williams called Kelly's 'national defense' claims "absurd" in a December 2009 Op-Ed published widely. "Could it really be true that the U.S. would remain outside one of the most inclusive and comprehensive treaties put together in the last 50 years?" asked Jody Williams, the Nobel laureate and co-founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), in a 2009 Op-Ed in the L.A. times. "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."
Exact figures are considered next-to-impossible to record on mine-related casualties. The Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor, the research and monitoring wing of the ICBL, (www.the-monitor.org) identified 3,956 casualties worldwide in 2009 due to mines, victim-activated IED's (improvised explosive devices), cluster munitions remnants, and other war-remnants in 64 nations. 70% of these casualties were civilians. Afghanistan has the highest number of such casualties.
“A never-ending review with no announced outcome is not a satisfactory
response to the innocent survivors and mine impacted communities that are waiting for the
U.S. to finally join the treaty and ban landmines once and for all", said Zach Hudson, the Coordinator of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines (USCBL.ORG), in a March 2012 press release. "The administration needs to submit the treaty to the Senate for its consent or explain its rationale for continuing the Bush- era policy of near isolation in remaining outside the convention”.
The issue, perhaps overlooked among mainstream U.S. public, nevertheless remains a global hazard for civilians around the world. Former F.B.I. director Robert Mueller, visiting Burma, relays the following narrative: "“I asked a Burmese why women, after centuries of following their men, now walk ahead. He said there were many unexploded land mines since the war.”
Lt. General Robert G. Gard, a former commander of US troops in Korea, had this message for President Obama:
"As a commander of U.S. troops in combat in Korea and Vietnam, I did not allow my soldiers to use anti-personnel landmines because I believed them to be a net liability. As President Obama seeks to repair America's reputation abroad, advocating U.S. adherence to the mine ban treaty would be a low-cost, meaningful gesture of diplomatic goodwill with both humanitarian and practical benefits. U.S. participation would almost certainly aid efforts to universalize the treaty by increasing pressure on other hold-out nations like China and Russia." (Huffington Post, March 18, 2009).