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Why Trump is lifting the land mine moratorium

Kay-Alexander Scholz | Mark Hallam
February 5, 2020

The US decision to allow its military to deploy land mines again seemed to come out of the blue. What might be the reasoning? And are the new generation land mines really safer for civilians as the Pentagon claims?

US-Minenräumdienst in Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/AP/R. Maqbool

Officially, the White House justifies allowing its military to use land mines again as a move "to give our military the flexibility and capability it needs to win." Even Barack Obama's 2014 moratorium on placing land mines made one exception, the Korean Peninsula. But who might the US want to deter with mines elsewhere? 

Rebecca Heinrichs from the conservative Hudson Institute think tank in Washington believes that the Pentagon is not focusing on anti-insurgent campaigns in the Middle East but rather on its future defense strategy. 

"The Trump administration has focused its defense policy on adapting its forces to deter China and Russia, and if deterrence fails, to fight and win a conflict with either of those powers. In a future theoretical war with either of these countries mines would be incredibly valuable and both countries have them, of course," Heinrichs says.

Like the US, fellow UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China are also not among the 164 signatories to the 1997 Ottawa Convention prohibiting the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines. 

"The US does not want a war with either of these powers but the best way to make sure that doesn't happen is to have a flexible military with a variety of tools at our disposal to complicate the enemy's calculations and shape the battlefield to our advantage. Mines help do that," Heinrichs says. 

A graphic showing where landmines are still believed to be present, as of 2019. Data from the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor organization.

Thousands of civilian victims each year

The Ottawa Convention came into force in 1999, forbidding both the use of anti-personnel mines and committing to redouble efforts to clear mined areas. Nevertheless, the annual report from the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor organization estimates that 50 million anti-personnel mines could still be in the ground. It recorded 6,897 deaths or injuries in 2018 as a result of mines, a similar number to previous years. The most typical victims are innocent civilians, often years or even decades after a conflict's end — perhaps children on their way to school or farmers tending their fields. 

Read more:  German tourist killed by land mine in Myanmar

Germany, a signatory to the Ottawa Convention, responded to the US announcement with "regret," with a government spokesman calling it a setback in global efforts to contain these weapons. Berlin added that its position on anti-personnel mines would not change — their deployment, production, stockpiling and sale or transfer would all stay taboo.

Rebecca Heinrichs says she'd join the chorus of criticism at this US decision, were it not for one important stipulation from Washington: "The US is talking about only non-persistent mines which would self-destruct after a short window of time ... American mines will not be a realistic danger to civilians."

The new mines have one of two safeguards, according to the Pentagon: either they can be disarmed remotely, or they disarm automatically after a time period not exceeding 30 days. It classes the error quota for these safeguards as negligible, at six cases in a million or 0.00006%.

Graphic showing where landmines are still thought to be a threat in Europe. Data from the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.
Parts of Europe still have landmine concerns to this day

But experts doubt the arms manufacturers' figures on modern land mines. Eva-Maria Fischer of Handicap International in Germany tells DW that the recorded error quota in the field was higher than claimed, citing different conditions — especially in terms of climate — to those in the laboratory.

Read more:  Clearing Cambodia's leftover land mines: A dangerous job

Deployment at the border to Mexico?

Thomas Gebauer from the Medico International NGO, one of the co-initiators of the Ottawa Convention, also doubts the Pentagon's figures on modern mines' safety. He says that in practice, the error quota has always stood at at least 1%. However, he does acknowledge the weapon's military usefulness. 

Gebauer believes three motives might have driven the decision: firstly the control and monitoring of territory, and restricting people or soldiers' movements. Here, he sees a potential political usage, especially for politicians focused on improved border security or control. 

"We fear that weapons like these might be used at borders by the US, for instance at Mexico's, to limit people's movement," Gebauer tells DW. 

Ukraine: Landmine clearing

He also cites the protection of US bases and facilities around the world, after repeated attacks and unrest at military and diplomatic facilities. 

Finally, Gebauer points to economic considerations, saying arms manufacturers have invested a lot in modern land mine technologies. Couple this with new technologies that aren't ready to roll out in the field yet — like sonic, laser or electronic weaponry — and perhaps the military is left with land mines as a stopgap measure.

Will others follow the US?

Gebauer is not particularly concerned about a domino effect after the US' latest decision, pointing out that Washington never signed up to the Ottawa Convention in full. He doesn't see any sign of a changing tide in Europe, for instance.

Handicap International sees the matter similarly, but Eva-Maria Fischer warns that other non-signatories to Ottawa may point to Washington as their reason for continuing to deploy anti-personnel mines.

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Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam