A group of soldiers with the 789th Ordnance Company prepare a cache of landmines and rockets to be disposed of by a high explosives charge near Baghdad, Iraq, on April 13, 2008.

A group of soldiers with the 789th Ordnance Company prepare a cache of landmines and rockets to be disposed of by a high explosives charge near Baghdad, Iraq, on April 13, 2008. Defense Imagery Management Operations Center by Sgt. Eric C. Hein

A Good Step Toward Ending Landmines

President Obama announced that the United States will no longer make or buy landmines. This is good, but he can do more to end this deadly scourge. By Joe Cirincione

The Obama administration announced this week that it will not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel landmines in the future, even to replace existing stockpiles as they expire.

It also is “diligently pursuing solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention – the treaty banning the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of [landmines]."

Landmines have never been consistent with American values or America’s national security interests. Ploughshares Fund was an early and sustained funder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to initiate and secure this treaty over the objections of many nations, including the United States. 

So, the news is a welcome step towards ending the use of these indiscriminate killers. President Barack Obama had to overcome substantial opposition from some in the Pentagon in order to make even this move. But he is now firmly heading in the right direction. He should now consider his next steps, including destroying the existing mines, committing never to use them again, and joining 161 other nations – including all our NATO allies – as a party to the Mine Ban Treaty before the end of his administration.

As the world’s preeminent military power and an international leader in human rights and democracy, public commitments by the United States influence militaries around the world. Even though the United States has far to go, this measured step strengthens the international norms against horrific weapons, like landmines, poison gas and nuclear weapons, which arbitrarily kill civilians. Children, families and nations will be safer without these weapons.

Many groups welcomed this announcement, but also expressed frustration that the administration’s review of its landmine policy has now dragged on for five years and has not resulted in more.

“The U.S. has finally come out of the shadows in indicating it intends to join the landmine treaty, and let’s hope it will move ahead rapidly to come on board,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch, and chair of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines, a coalition of more than 400 nongovernmental organizations. “This is an important acknowledgement that the treaty provides the best framework for achieving a world free of deadly antipersonnel mines.”

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement:

“The U.S. statement from Maputo is useful in that it underscores landmines are not essential to U.S. security and are on their way out, but it falls short of what can and should be done. The United States currently has no plans to produce antipersonnel mines barred by the treaty, and there are no victim-activated munitions being funded in the procurement or the research and development budgets of any of the armed services or the Defense Department.

Without a commitment to destroy some or all of the United States existing stockpile of landmines and on a schedule,” he said, “the pledge not to produce or acquire landmines will have little material effect on existing U.S. stockpiles (which number in the millions) for many, many years to come.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., an early and strong support of the efforts to eliminate these deadly weapons, took to the Senate floor on June 24, with a stirring testament to how persistence and vision can accomplish what many people once thought impossible:

“The impact of that treaty, once ridiculed as a naïve dream by many in the U.S. defense establishment, has been extraordinary. The vast majority of landmine use and production has stopped, new casualties have dropped significantly, and many countries have cleared the mined areas in their territories. Of the 35 countries that have not yet joined the treaty, including the United States, almost all abide by its key provisions. 

But I remember, during the negotiations on the treaty, how officials in the U.S. administration at the time urged, and at times even warned, their counterparts in other governments against joining the treaty. 

They said it was a meaningless gesture that would accomplish nothing. I think they resented that other governments, especially Canada, and nongovernmental organizations from around the world, could achieve something outside the United Nations negotiations process, which had utterly failed to address the problem.

Instead, the treaty has already accomplished more than most people expected, thanks to the extraordinary advocacy of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and three quarters of the world’s governments, many of whose people have suffered from the scourge of landmines.”

Leahy urged the president to accelerate his review and join the treaty soon. Wise counsel. Time is running out