In a move that further cements how out of step the Trump administration is from its allies and international norms and standards, the administration has released a new US landmines policy allowing the production and use of antipersonnel landmines for future conflicts. The policy, which rolls back decades of US practice and approach, isolates the United States and puts American servicemembers and civilians around the globe at risk.
The Trump administration policy allows for the use of “non-persistent” landmines (those that have self-destruct or self-deactivation mechanisms) in any area, not limited by geographic location. This means landmines can be used by US forces – with a decision by the combatant commanders – in any area where they are deemed necessary. By comparison, the previous policy banned landmine production and made limited exceptions for their use only on the Korean peninsula.
The new policy rescinds Presidential Policy Directive 37 (2016) which codified the Obama administration’s 2014 landmines policy updates. Specifically, in June 2014, the Obama administration announced that the United States would no longer produce, acquire, or replace antipersonnel mines, and in September 2014 it announced that the United States would no longer use landmines anywhere in the world except for the Korean Peninsula. It also pledged — outside of Korea — not to assist or otherwise encourage other countries to engage in activities prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty and to destroy any landmine stocks not required for the defense of South Korea. Further, in 2014, the United States announced it would work toward US accession to the international Mine Ban Treaty.
In the field, an anti-personnel landmine cannot distinguish between a soldier and a child. It doesn’t matter if that mine will self-destruct in less than a month or just a few days.
The Trump administration’s announcement walks back from these incremental steps that had better aligned US policy with global standards and norms against landmines, and came as a surprise to members of Congress, close US allies, and non-governmental organizations that have worked to rid the world of landmines for decades, as the stigma against their use has grown. More than 160 nations have now ratified the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits the stockpiling, production, and use of landmines.
For nearly 30 years, the US military has done without landmines and has incrementally moved closer to joining the majority of the world in prohibiting their use. The United States last deployed anti-personnel mines in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. However, since then, the United States has not used landmines, with an exception made for the use of a single antipersonnel mine in Afghanistan in 2002.
The reversal of landmine policy is another example of the United States turning its back on international norms, being out of step with its allies, and needlessly putting civilians at risk. Although the policy commits to trying to minimize civilian casualties, the nature of these weapons makes that commitment hollow. The characterization of mines as non-persistent is artificial, as there have been and will inevitably be failures in the technology. In the field, an anti-personnel landmine cannot distinguish between a soldier and a child. It doesn’t matter if that mine will self-destruct in less than a month or just a few days. While active, these weapons are deadly.
Numerous outstanding questions remain about the implementation of this new policy, including from the United States’ closest allies. The European Union has expressed its disappointment in and concern with the policy announcement, making clear allies were not consulted nor support the reversal. Moreover, the status of joint operations where landmines are involved could be jeopardized, undermining US operational abilities and effectiveness despite the claim that this new policy provides the United States with increased options to counter threats. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has decades of experience working with landmine survivors and recovery from the humanitarian catastrophe caused by landmines, took the exceptional measure of issuing a statement publicly expressing regret at the US decision and re-issuing its call for a global ban on landmines.
The stigma against landmines is real and the threat to civilians from these indiscriminate weapons is tremendous. The US announcement gives a green light to nefarious governments to use landmines with impunity and cover to justify their actions. In effect, the Trump administration has given other governments permission to act with little respect for international law and to remain outside growing norms of international behavior. The new landmines policy further isolates America from the rest of the world and misaligns the US from traditional partners and those most closely relied upon to counter threats to national and international security. This decision is yet another example of the United States, under the Trump administration, defining its own rules and ignoring global standards of behavior.
Rachel Stohl is Vice President and directs the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center.