Cheap and deadly, land mines have been the target of a spirited grassroots campaign for abolition for the past 15 years. The largely successful effort resulted in the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention. As of July 1, 145 countries had ratified the Mine Ban Treaty and another eight had signed but not yet ratified it. The United States has not been a party to the Mine Ban Treaty but has agreed in principle with the goal of abolition and has not apparently deployed antipersonnel mines since the Gulf War in 1991. Since 1992, the U.S. has had a prohibition on exports of antipersonnel mines.
That might be about to change.
In February 2004, after two and a half years of review, the Bush administration announced a new land-mine policy that reversed years of progress toward abolition. The policy officially disavowed the previously stated goal of ratifying the Mine Ban Treaty, on the grounds that the treaty would have required the U.S. to give up a "needed military capability." Now, the results of that policy shift are beginning to be seen:
Congress will decide in December whether to begin production of a new class of antipersonnel mine called Spider.
According to an unconfirmed media report, last May the U.S. Army in Iraq was to begin deploying a new remote- controlled land-mine system called Matrix, using technology developed for Spider.
The Pentagon has requested $1.3 billion for development and production of another new antipersonnel mine, disingenuously called the Intelligent Munitions System. Congress is expected to decide on full production in 2008.
There is concern that a U.S. proposal for an international prohibition on the export of land mines that do not self- destruct will pave the way for the resumption of U.S. export of antipersonnel mines that do self-destruct. The Mine Ban Treaty bans self-destructing and persistent land mines alike. Human Rights Watch, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations agencies, and pro-ban governments have long argued that a global prohibition must include all types of antipersonnel mines.
Simply put, the campaign to ban land mines has largely been successful because the weapon is barbaric. Countries throughout the unindustrialized world that have been the site of past or present armed conflicts are plagued by land mines scattered throughout the countryside—weapons that can lie dormant for years and continue to maim or kill farmers and peasants. At times, the mines use brightly colored covers to attract children, who, thinking they are toys, proceed to get blown to bits. Because they are inexpensive to produce, some countries have literally millions of land mines scattered across the landscape.
The U.S. still stockpiles 10.4 million mines—third in the world behind China and Russia. The U.S. also has 7.5 million anti-vehicle mines, with production and export ongoing. And the U.S. continues to use cluster bombs and other weapons that function much the same as antipersonnel land mines, with the ability to lie dormant for years before killing.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines—the grassroots group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997—has been working with U.S. peace groups like United for Peace, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Justice and Peace Action to try to organize opposition to this December's congressional vote on the Spider system. Saturday, Sept. 24, the many thousands going to Washington, D.C., to protest the war in Iraq were planning also to lobby Congress to defy the Pentagon and the Bush administration and derail plans for resumption of land-mine production. This is not a conservative or liberal issue. It is an issue of human rights and of America's willingness to use a weapon considered beyond the pale by its allies and, indeed, most of the world.
Of course, one needn't go to Washington to lobby congressional representatives. Now would be a fine time to call or write your representatives and urge them to not fund Spider or America's new generation of antipersonnel mines. On this one issue, at least, the U.S. can well afford to honor the standard respected by the rest of the world.