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U.S. Landmine Policy and the Ottawa Convention Ban on Anti-Personnel Landmines: Similar Path

Richard G. Kidd, Director, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement
Washington, DC
November 21, 2007

It is a curious and unfortunate paradox that the United States, the world's largest single financial contributor to mine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance, and the only major military power that has pledged to leave no mine behind on any battlefield, is considered by some to have rejected the humanitarian goal of protecting civilians from the effects of landmines during and after armed conflict. Why is this so? Simply because we will not join the Ottawa Convention, a landmine treaty whose absolutist formulation we cannot accept.

This paradox results in a situation in which the United States operates at the center of the humanitarian mine action community, yet it stands outside of the Ottawa process. Given this unique position, the United States has the advantage of well-earned credibility to provide commentary on the past and future of mine action, and to do so unconstrained by any demands to adhere to the political orthodoxy of the Ottawa Convention.

The Ottawa Convention's clear and simple message, to ban anti-personnel landmines, caused the convention to be quickly adopted, and has undeniably led to reductions in the humanitarian hazards generated by indiscriminately used anti-personnel landmines. Yet it is this very simplicity that is also the greatest weakness of the Ottawa Convention; it ignores other hazardous mines -- such as anti-vehicle mines -- and at-risk munitions, calls for the wasteful and unnecessary expenditure of scarce resources where they are sometimes not needed most, and perpetuates an artificial and sometimes acrimonious divide between states that share the goal of reducing the humanitarian effects of such munitions on civilians.

While there have been marked successes over the past ten years in terms of reducing the humanitarian impacts of landmines, not all of these successes can be ascribed solely to the Ottawa Convention. Indeed, further political or humanitarian returns generated by a strict, literal adherence to certain aspects of the Convention will come only at an exponentially increasing cost. In effect, the Convention has hit its "high water mark." A strict "mine free" interpretation of its requirements would require every anti-personnel mine to be removed, no matter how remote or costly, will in the end serve to divert limited financial resources from other humanitarian crises where they could do more good and save more lives.

The United States is moving deliberately and with due humanitarian consideration toward an approach to post-conflict clearance and destruction programs that address all explosive remnants of war and not just landmines. This approach is reflected in new authorities provided to the Department of State by our Congress and with expanded financial resources. While it might be easy and simple to direct clearance efforts toward one specific type of weapon or munition as suggested in the Ottawa Convention and other ad hoc processes, such as landmines or cluster munitions or AK-47s, in the end, such an approach falls short as it is driven more by political optics than by the on-the-ground requirements. The United States believes that a better approach is to seek measures that meet the totality of the needs experienced by countries suffering from the legacy of war. The United States urges others -- donors, activists, academics, and impacted nations -- to take a more holistic approach by directing clearance, and destruction efforts, and resources towards communities that suffer from surplus, abandoned, or residual conventional weapons and munitions of all types, and to do so upon the basis of objective requirements rather than political pronouncements.

Celebrating Common Accomplishments

The negotiation of the Ottawa Convention came at a time in history that was most opportune for its supporters. Earlier wars of decolonization as well as proxy struggles during the Cold War changed the way mines were used, making them more often than not weapons of terror directed against civilians by insurgents rather than legitimate weapons used between armies on the field of battle. More recently, the end of the Cold War, the success of former colonies struggling for independence, and a series of relatively effective peacekeeping interventions helped to stop the most egregious cases of mine laying.

The world was still shocked by the atrocities of Cambodia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan but not yet sure if the actions of the UN and NATO peacekeepers would carry the day when the Ottawa Convention opened for signatures in 1997. Taking advantage of this unique geo-political moment, the Ottawa Convention built upon or expanded many practices that already were being tried and tested in various forms by military, technical, and humanitarian experts. Subsequently there has been an impressive list of positive outcomes, some attributable to the Ottawa process, others a natural result of ongoing trends in warfare and post-conflict response. In many cases, the United States, while not a party to the Convention, has contributed directly and substantially to these positive outcomes because of our interest in reducing the humanitarian threat posed by such munitions, and because it was the right thing to do, not because of any particular provision of the Ottawa Convention.

The trade in landmines of all types has decreased dramatically in the past ten years. The laying of new mines is down, the number of mines coming out of the ground has increased, and tens of millions of mines held in stockpiles have been destroyed, accomplishments that are all in line with U.S. policy and practice. Since 1992, the United States has banned the sale and transfer of its anti-personnel landmines. Similarly, those major military powers, which are not members of the Ottawa Convention, have abided by their obligations under the Amended Mines Protocol of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which, along with the changing nature of warfare, has limited the laying of mines principally to dictatorial regimes, extremist insurgents, and narco-traffickers. In addition, the United States has concerted efforts underway to help countries destroy their surplus conventional weapons stockpiles, including landmine stockpiles, particularly in cases where such stockpiles might be subject to diversion for illicit purposes, or pose a safety threat to adjoining communities due to spontaneous detonation. These efforts seek to destroy all stockpile contents, not just selected types of munitions such as anti-personnel landmines.

Another aspect of the Ottawa Convention that is often positively cited is its call for those nations in a position to do so to provide assistance to survivors of landmine accidents. The USAID Leahy War Victims Fund has been helping landmine survivors and their families since its creation in 1989 when it started working in Afghanistan. Today it has supported programs in more than 40 countries and has spent over $143 million to expand access to affordable, appropriate prosthetics and orthotic services, and to advance the economic, social, and political integration of civilian war victims and people living with disabilities. These services are provided to all war victims, regardless of the type of munition causing the injury.

The Ottawa Convention has provided an opportunity for expanded citizen involvement, but this movement is not based just around the Convention. The United States government works actively and closely with more than sixty non-governmental organizations and citizens groups in its public-private partnership program, helping to expand awareness of this issue. Today, private U.S. citizens are contributing millions of dollars to mine action annually.

Most estimates indicate that somewhere between $3.0 and $4.0 billion dollars have been provided to humanitarian mine action efforts across the globe. It is important to acknowledge that the United States alone has provided over $1.2 billion of this amount, or roughly 1/3 of the world's total since 1993. Right now the United States provides over 100% more funding to mine action than the next largest single contributor. Clearly, there would be much less to celebrate today with respect to the accomplishments of mine action were it not for the sustained and substantial support of the United States. Given that mine victims are down to around 5,000 per year from 26,000 per year four years ago (something that all should celebrate), and assuming that victim rates are proportional to funds provided to mine clearance, the U.S. share of this decrease, 7,000, is greater than the current number of casualties. In other words, there would be at least twice as many mine victims today then there are currently, were it not for the efforts of the U.S.

This financial investment has increased national capacity and dramatically improved mine action efficiency, effectiveness, and safety in mine affected countries. Impact surveys, management training, enhanced information systems, and better demining techniques have come together to ensure that mine clearance is safer and more productive than it was ten years ago, while better targeted to achieve higher "returns" in terms of released land and reduced casualties. Almost all mine affected countries, at least those that want U.S. funding, now produce strategic plans that prioritize clearance efforts based upon humanitarian "impacts," thus ensuring that the most valuable land and most dangerous minefields are cleared first.

Proximate Goals - The U.S. Policy Position

The essence of United States landmine policy is that we retain the right to employ landmines to defend our men and women in uniform, and starting in 2010, we will have systems in place to ensure that the U.S. goal of no mine ever being left behind anywhere in the world where it might pose a threat to civilians is achieved. No other significant military power has made such a sweeping commitment for all types of landmines. Similarly, in 2005 the United States banned the use of non-detectable mines - regardless of whether they were anti-vehicle or anti-personnel. The United States recognized the post-conflict humanitarian impact these mines could have and acted accordingly. We urge other states to follow suit.

The United States, for its own national security and for humanitarian imperatives, seeks a world that is free from the humanitarian impact of landmines - - "mine-impact free." While the "mine free" terminology associated with the Ottawa Convention is viewed by many as inspirational and visionary, it is by definition "absolutist" and not grounded in practical realities. Attempting to achieve a "mine free" status will result in the ever expanding expenditure of resources to find and clear mines that have ever decreasing humanitarian impact. This is a losing proposition that will consume the budgets of every donor and mine-affected country, to declining effect. Given the finite resources of donor governments and the governments of mine-affected countries who must cope with other humanitarian challenges such as disease, poverty, food security, and other dire needs - we, the international community, can not afford the opportunity costs of trying to find the last "million dollar" landmine. Instead, such funds would be much better utilized addressing the far higher numbers of people who are killed every year from other issues found in post-conflict environments.

Instead of focusing on mines, the United States has directed its programmatic efforts toward people, attempting to develop and support programmatic responses based upon the analysis of the most pressing humanitarian impacts generated by all explosive remnants of war, not just landmines. We will not support programs that aim to clear the last landmine. But we will support well-run programs that address the most pressing needs first and have in place plans for a long-term, limited response mechanism to meet any emerging needs.

For example, in Costa Rica, Djibouti, Macedonia, and Namibia, all of which suffered from varying degrees of landmine infestation, people are safely getting on with their lives again, because those mines and explosive remnants of war that impacted them are gone. Does this mean that every single landmine in some remote piece of jungle in Costa Rica or uninhabited stretch of desert in Djibouti has been cleared? No. But both countries are now devoting their budgets and energies to other pressing issues, and they have the national capacity to deal with any remaining explosives that may be encountered.

Besides landmines, we must also contend with the other detritus of former conflicts, which are often precursors to new ones. Prominent among these is the problem of unauthorized access to surplus military-grade small arms and light weapons used to kill and maim hundreds of thousands of people each year, but which receive only a minor fraction of the funding devoted to clearing landmines.

Similarly, another looming humanitarian threat in many parts of the world is that of inadequately maintained and poorly secured munitions depots, abandoned ordnance, and unexploded ordnance of all types. In most post-conflict countries, more people now come to harm through interaction with unexploded ordnance of all types than through landmines. Poor maintenance and handling of stored munitions contributes to spontaneous explosions of catastrophic proportions. A case in point is Mozambique, which had 645 killed and injured when a munitions depot blew up outside the capital, Maputo, in March 2007. Contrast this with the 35 known landmine casualties in Mozambique for all of 2006.

Therefore, resources should be allocated in proportion to the threat. By this measure it is clear that global funding streams available to address the hazards of conventional munitions and weapons are not aligned with global needs. If the "market" for funding is allowed to operate efficiently, we should expect that in the coming years fewer funds will be going into mine action and more into the destruction of other illicit or unnecessary conventional munitions, unexploded ordnance, and small arms.

Facing the Future Problem

The United States is taking steps now to prepare for this future. In 2003, the budget for the U.S. Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, which is but one part of the interagency U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action Program, was $62 million. Congressional authorities at that time limited these funds only to mine action and, less so, to the destruction of small arms and light weapons. In fiscal year 2008, the budget request for this Office is $121 million with expanded authorities to address larger conventional weapons and munitions.

The United States and indeed all others who have been involved in humanitarian mine action should step back and reflect together on the future. In doing so we should focus on the needs of communities and countries impacted by war. Approaches based on a specific weapon or munition are only useful up to a point, but can be detrimental to common goals if they result in a diversion or misallocation of resources away from larger problems. During this reflection process we need to ask ourselves: when has enough been spent on mine action? What residual capacities, if any, need to reside in a country once major mine clearance operations are no longer essential? And what steps can and should be taken to address the broader constellation of challenges posed by all illicit or unnecessary conventional munitions and weapons? Communities and nations impacted by the harmful residue of war; landmines, unexploded or abandoned ordnance, and small arms and light weapons, deserve that these questions be answered objectively and in a manner that best protects civilians, not from any one single munition, but from all of them.

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