Past Time to Join the Landmine Treaty

While 156 countries have signed on, the United States has not yet agreed to join the ban on the production, use, sale, and stockpiling of anti-personnel landmines.
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This month marks the tenth anniversary of the entry into force of an international agreement that has prevented incalculable civilian deaths and injuries from war: the 1997 Landmine Treaty.

While 156 countries have signed on, the United States is one of a small minority of states that has not yet agreed to join the ban on the production, use, sale, and stockpiling of anti-personnel landmines.

President Barack Obama has an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to international cooperation by urging the Senate to approve the treaty and thereby place the United States in the company of nations committed to ending the use of these indiscriminate weapons.

A dozen years ago, I joined a group of retired military officers that urged President Bill Clinton to sign the global treaty. 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.

Pentagon casualty reports from Korea, Vietnam, and the 1991 Persian Gulf War attest to the toll that landmines, many of them our own, have taken on our service men and women. Veterans across this country can testify to the devastating injuries these counter-productive weapons have inflicted on both U.S. servicemen and civilians in the countries where they have been employed.

The U.S. military has not used landmines in combat since 1991 and has not procured any new landmines since 1997. The real reason for the Pentagon's resistance to having the United States join the treaty was fear of the "slippery slope." Defense officials worried that caving in to a landmine ban would lead to efforts to ban other weapons that possess genuine military utility.

The United States has agreed that non-self destructing "dumb" landmines are no longer necessary. President George Bush in 2004 announced a policy that will lead to the destruction of the U.S. stockpile of these weapons by 2010. But we continue to resist joining the mine ban treaty out of a desire to retain so-called "smart," or self-destructing, landmines, even though our use of these weapons reduces the operational tempo of our forces and causes casualties among our own troops. According to a 2002 report by the Government Accountability Office, our "smart" landmines caused numerous injuries and six percent of the deaths of U.S. service members in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

The mine ban treaty has worked. In the last ten years, the world has seen a near total end to the use of these weapons by national militaries, as well as a reduction in their use by non-state combatants. The treaty has resulted in the destruction of millions of mines. It also has brought international assistance to thousands of mine victims and billions of dollars for clearing mines and other explosive ordnance that remain active and lethal long after wars have ended. This treaty, literally, has saved thousands of lives and prevented horrible injuries.

Admirably, the United States has contributed over $1.3 billion since 1993 to clear mines and aid victims of landmines. This financial commitment has been undermined, however, by our lack of political commitment to ending their use.

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.

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