The United States hasn’t used land mines on the battlefield in more than two decades. It has poured nearly $2 billion into mine clearance, helping the injured and other assistance since 1993, making it a commanding force in the global battle against antipersonnel land mines.
Yet the U.S. hasn't signed an international treaty to ban land mines, a step that activists have urged to rid the world of the indiscriminate weapons that kill and maim thousands every year. A coalition of human rights groups renewed their calls on Wednesday, the International Day for Mine Awareness.
“The U.S. has offered no good reason why they can’t join,” said Ed Kenny, director of operations at Handicap International. "These weapons no longer have a place in warfare."
The Clinton administration decided not to join the Ottawa Convention, which requires countries not to use, produce or transfer antipersonnel mines, to destroy their stockpiles and to clear any mined areas in their territory within a decade. The Bush administration also turned it down.
When President Obama took office, land mine activists hoped that would change. Three years ago, a State Department official initially said it wouldn’t change the policy -- then later shifted course and said it was under review. The United States still has 10.4 million land mines stockpiled for future use.
"Our review is taking into account what impact it would have on our ability to conduct military operations," Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro said in December. "And after that review is done, we will come to a decision about the best way ahead."
Why has the U.S. resisted the push to ban land mines so far? The State Department shed little light on the issue Wednesday, beyond saying it was under review. However, in the past under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, U.S. officials have given several reasons for not signing on.
The U.S. has drawn a line in the past between “smart” and “dumb” land mines. So-called smart land mines that destruct or deactivate automatically are allowed by U.S. policy, while “dumb” mines that last indefinitely are not. Such smart mines might be used to slow down advancing enemy forces.
In an online op-ed, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Richard G. Kidd IV argued that the U.S. retained the right to use land mines to defend its soldiers, but would ensure no mines were ever left behind afterward to threaten civilians, a likely allusion to the use of smart mines instead of dumb ones.
A National Research Council report argued that the weapons were "militarily advantageous and safe. They achieve desired military objectives without endangering U.S. war fighters or noncombatants more than other weapons of war." Land mine opponents argue that smart mines do not always deactivate. Even if they do, they can injure anyone who runs across them while they are active, activists say.
The Koreas have been another worry. The Clinton administration unsuccessfully pushed for an exception to the Ottawa Convention for land mines strewn in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which were meant to stop North Korea from invading its southern neighbor.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams pointed out in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that those mines now belong to South Korea, not the U.S., "and therefore would be unaffected by Obama's joining the Mine Ban Treaty." But Lincoln Bloomfield, an assistant secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, said that wasn't true when President Clinton was wrestling with the Ottawa Convention.
"The U.S. could sign all those land mines over to South Korea and then say, 'My hands are clean,'" Bloomfield said. "We could say, 'Look how great we are,' but we've have just handed the problem over."
Moreover, joint military operations by South Korea and the U.S. could still be problematic under the ban. If a U.S. general leads joint forces, he or she could not order or accept the South Korean use of antipersonnel mines, said Stephen Goose, chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
"That's the one thing that I think is now hanging up the Obama review" on land mines, Goose said. However, "I would think they'd be able to find a way around that."
Some American officials also feared that focusing on removing every mine, no matter how remote or costly, would prevent them from focusing their resources where they were needed most, for instance, in areas where mines were causing deaths. Though the U.S. would only be legally mandated to clear its own territory, Bloomfield and Kidd argued signing would effectively commit it to "a mine-free world."
Although the State Department declined to offer reasons why the U.S. had not agreed to the ban, a spokesperson said it "shares the humanitarian concern of parties to the Ottawa Convention." Landmine activists are hoping that Obama will agree to the ban before the end of his first term.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A Yemeni man learns to walk with a prosthetic limb at a prosthetics center in Sana, one day before International Day for Mine Awareness. Credit: Yahya Arhab / European Pressphoto Agency