The recent meeting in Mozambique of the signers of the Ottawa Convention, which bans the use of landmines, has brought the subject of landmines back into the spotlight. To date, 161 countries have signed the treaty, and its aims were included as official United Nations policy in 1999.
Long a vocal opponent of landmine proliferation and usage, President Barack Obama opened a review of America’s landmine policy in 2009. He has yet to take a major action, but many Obama-watchers fear he will soon take action to sign the treaty. He would be wrong to do so.
A time may come when landmines are no longer useful to the security of nations, but that time is not now. Whilst armies still depend on conventional weapons and movement – moving tanks and large infantry groups –the defensive tactic of landmines is highly useful and appropriate: it is cheap, affordable, and maintains borders. Their existence can slow or stop an advance by breaking up an attack and forcing attackers to go certain routes, delaying or even halting conflict.
Mines can even deter invasion in the first place. This has been the case in South Korea. The defense of South Korea from North Korean aggression depends upon the thick belt of landmines that lines the demilitarized zone. Without it, North Korea’s million-man army could easily cross into South Korea and take Seoul before sufficient defenses could be marshalled. South Korea is a key ally of the USA and to join in the ban on landmines would be to betray that ally. The failure of the Ottawa Convention to grant an exception for the Korean peninsula was the key reason for USA non-participation in the first place.
The convention also fails to adequately distinguish between different kinds of landmines. The US military has developed mines that can deactivate themselves and can even self-destruct. America only manufactures smart mines, and since 1976 the USA has tested 32,000 mines with a successful self-destruction rate of 99.996 per cent. The ban also fails to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible users. Under American deployment, only smart mines are used, and they are used responsibly, being set and removed in a methodical manner.
Another issue with a landmine ban is that it is easily circumvented by state and non-state actors alike. Landmines are merely a convenient way of providing what can be rigged in many ways – an explosion triggered when movement occurs in a particular area. Without landmines being legally available, soldiers and fighters will improvise landmines – they will wire up pressure plates and hand grenades and trip wires and high explosive charges, with much the same result. These tend to be much more difficult to disarm as they will not have a standard design and they may also have much more explosive power. This behavior was widespread in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The only differences are that these weapons are less efficient, and more dangerous to the user who prepares them.
It is not in America’s interest to ban landmines. Our ally relies on them and they still represent a valuable weapon system. Obama should not attach the United States to yet another treaty that diminishes our independence and denies us a tool for our defense and the defense of our allies.