The Colby Reader

Blowing up the Myths of America's Landmine Policy

By Daniel O'Connor

Global landmine contamination has been recognized by the international community as a pressing humanitarian crisis. Each year sixty-four countries care for or stockpile over two hundred million extant landmines, lay two to five new million landmines, and clear only one hundred thousand old landmines from their territories. Landmines caused thirty-three percent of all total American casualties in the Vietnam Conflict and caused thirty-four percent of all American causalities during the Gulf War. Fifty-five percent of landmine victims die before receiving medical assistance, twenty-eight percent of mine survivors lose one or both limbs after amputations, and seventy-five percent of amputees require blood transfusions, straining on global blood supply. The U.S. State Department estimates that landmines kill or injure one civilian worldwide every twenty-two minutes-totaling nearly twenty-six thousand victims per year. Landmines also pose a threat to global economies and ecosystems, particularly of third world countries. Landmines render large tracts of agricultural land unusable, often causing malnutrition or starvation among agrarian populations. A posted sign may warn people that one landmines lies buried within a village field, but since the exact location of that landmine is difficult and expensive to determine, the entire field must be avoided. Because of this phenomenon, many third world countries, particularly Afghanistan and Cambodia, simply cannot establish an agrarian base necessary for them stabilize their national economies. Likewise, as especially seen in Mozambique, landmine corruption can also lead to severe drought and famine because landmines consume large amounts of otherwise farmable land. Not only do landmines limit economic production, but also burden these countries with enormous medical problems. For example, within the past ten years landmines have reduced the population of Angola by twenty-five percent. In Cambodia, one out of every two hundred thirty-six citizens is a landmine amputee. Because of these trends, the international community has reassessed the ethicality of anti-personnel landmines. Many argue that landmine usage violates Article 22 of the Hague Regulations on Land Warfare, part of the Hague Convention of 1907 which set specific limits on military conduct. These laws have been expanded in modern times to prohibit the attack of set civilian objectives, to require the cancellation of a mission if more civilians than troops would likely be harmed, and to limit superfluous suffering during war, both to combatants and civilians. For these reasons, the international community-approximately 190 countries (through the "Ottawa Process")-has concluded that anti-personnel landmines contradict our sense of humanitarian and military ethics, and has therefore agreed to stop producing, trading and/or planting new landmines. The United States government, not officially joining Ottawa, has taken many actions on its own to address American landmine usage. In 1993, under the leadership of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Congress adopted a one-year moratorium on American exports of anti-personnel landmines, a law which President Clinton made permanent in January 1998. As of May 1998, the Department of Defense announced that in 1997 the United States removed approximately two and a half million non self-destructing APL from current American stockpiles, drastically improved de-mining technology, and increased funding for international de-mining efforts. The Clinton administration has reaffirmed "America's strong commitment to…sign the Ottawa Convention." America's commitment to the landmine treaty, however, remains ambivalent. Although the Clinton administration has taken a more active role in landmine negotiations, (attending, most recently, the Oslo, Norway phase of Ottawa in September 1997), it has jeopardized the integrity of the treaty itself. America entered these conferences with a series of new conditions which arguably undermine the intent of Ottawa. Specifically, these American representatives demanded that the current landmine treaty allow the unlimited use of "smart mines," future landmine technology which would deactivate landmines after a specified length of time, and allow America to use both smart and "dumb" mines, current landmine technology, to protect the North Korean peninsula. The American representatives also insisted that America should receive special exemptions from the treaty until the year 2006, or until India, Russia and China also sign and ratify the treaty. There are a number of inaccuracies in this current American stance on smart mines. Although smart mines may eventually reduce accidental civilian landmine casualties, smart mines do not make landmines more humane to ground troops as defined by the Hague Resolutions. Besides, even if the landmines are "programmed" to self-detonate after a given amount of time, while they remain active smart antipersonnel landmines still cannot distinguish between a soldier and a civilian. An exception allowing America to lay smart mines means an exception for everybody to lay smart mines, thus defeating the spirit of the treaty. Also, America has historically used unilateral disarmament as a successful military tactic. President Kennedy led the United States to a unilateral ban on nuclear testing. Similarly, in the 1980s President Reagan initiated the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). These actions forced the international community, including the Soviet Union, to join us in productive negotiations. Both these examples also illustrate the impact the United States has on global demilitarization. There are many other, more self-interested, motives behind America's reluctance to agree to the Ottawa Process. The American military wants to continue the use of a proven tactical weapon as well as maintain its overwhelming advantage in strategic posturing. Landmines, besides stabilizing the balance of global power, also save the lives of American troops when in combat. However, America's massive production and exportation of landmines may be a more accurate reason why America refuses to participate in Ottawa. From 1969 to 1992 the United States exported nearly four and a half million antipersonnel landmines to at least thirty-four different countries (including Afghanistan, Angola, Vietnam and Iraq). For these landmines America received on average one hundred twenty-five million dollars per year. Over forty-seven American companies manufacture APL, their components or delivery systems. Landmine production contracts in the late 1980s and early 1990s have earned companies upwards of three hundred thirty-six million dollars (Alliant technologies; 1985-95). While currently American corporations are adhering to the American moratorium on landmine production (America's stockpiles are full), the American defense industry is no doubt reluctant to lose such lucrative business relationships with the Pentagon and the foreign countries who also purchase these landmines. The United States must put aside mere self interest and do what is best for the world. Although the Ottawa Process can succeed without the United States' approval, the treaty would have greater legitimacy and more enforceability if the world's superpower also ratified and followed it. The United States alone has the power to end the use of landmines, cruel devices which breach military ethics, impede international progress and violate human dignity.

Back Home

All content © The Colby Reader, c/o Student Activities, 5900 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, ME 04901,207-872-3847,