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.