Another horror has been added to the long list of atrocities occurring in Ukraine: anti-personnel landmines.
Landmines are indiscriminate killers. Buried in the ground, they explode on contact, ripping apart bodies and lives. They cause blindness, amputation, and death. Thousands of modern anti-personnel landmines can be dropped by aircraft or scattered by artillery in a matter of minutes — leaving large swaths of land littered with uncharted explosives. They are known to disproportionately impact civilians. Because of their brutality, 80% of the world has banned landmines. Last week Human Rights Watch confirmed Russia’s use of illegal anti-personnel landmines in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
While the international community rightly condemns these actions, the US is in no place to criticize Russia. Why? Because the US has failed to ban these weapons itself.
This week, as we mark the second International Mine Awareness Day of President Joe Biden’s term, the US remains guided by a Trump era policy that allows the US military to deploy anti-personnel landmines anywhere in the world. This policy unravels decades of work to set the US on a path to ridding itself of these weapons. Despite then-candidate Biden’s promise to “promptly” roll back this “misguided” policy, and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s reiteration of this promise in April 2021, Biden has not yet taken action to ban these immoral weapons.
Currently, 164 nations, including all our NATO partners, are signatories of the Mine Ban Treaty — demonstrating a clear global consensus against the “use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of anti-personnel mines.” The US, along with Russia, stands decidedly apart by refusing to renounce these weapons. As the US aims to show close unity with its partners and allies in opposition to the war in Ukraine, its landmine policy is a source of controversy and division.
PLANTING SEEDS OF SUFFERING
Anti-personnel landmines are not only militarily unnecessary, but also morally unsustainable. Such weapons are designed to explode by “the presence, proximity or contact of a person,” regardless of whether it is a soldier or civilian, adult or child. The dangers of these landmines persist long after peace agreements have been signed and soldiers have been sent home. In 2020 alone, landmines and explosive remnants of war caused 7,073 casualties, 80% of which were civilians. Children made up half of the civilian casualties.
As the US aims to show close unity with its partners and allies in opposition to the war in Ukraine, its landmine policy is a source of controversy and division.
When the Trump administration released its 2020 US landmine policy, more than 60 organizations denounced it, describing it as both “a tragedy” and “an affront to the dignity of landmine survivors.” Over the past two years, Congress has sent multiple bipartisan and bicameral letters questioning the policy and urging President Biden to jumpstart the process to join the Mine Ban Treaty. However, despite his campaign promise, and despite pressure from human rights organizations, landmine survivor advocates, communities of faith, and members of Congress, the policy remains unchanged.
The Pentagon has not regularly deployed anti-personnel landmines since the early 1990s, yet officials argue that anti-personnel landmines are a “vital tool” in this new “era of strategic competition.” But this claim rings hollow: US commanders have voiced concerns over American anti-personnel landmines limiting US troop maneuverability. As Alfred Gray Jr., a retired Marine Corps commandant general, succinctly stated, “we kill more Americans with our own mines than we do anyone else.”
Meanwhile, the US is the world’s largest funder of landmine clearance, spending over $1 billion globally since 2015. In other words, under the current policy, US taxpayers are paying for the removal of “the dangers already lurking in the ground” while the US military could add to these dangers by deploying new anti-personnel landmines anywhere in the world.
In remarks made in April 2021, Thomas-Greenfield confirmed that “President Biden has been clear that he intends to roll back this policy, and our administration has begun a policy review to do just that.” However, few details about the review process or timeline have been publicly announced and a year later, it has yet to reach completion. Further inaction is unacceptable. For the sake of future generations, the US must act swiftly to ban anti-personnel landmines and join the Mine Ban Treaty. Clearing the land of the millions of mines still scattered across the globe is not enough. The Biden administration must end the planting of new seeds of suffering.
As a moral act for the dignity of survivors of landmines and to strengthen global norms, Biden must finally take action. Today, at a time when unity with our allies is critical, joining the consensus to ban anti-personnel landmines is imperative.
Rafaela Demerath is the program assistant for the peacebuilding team at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. She lobbies Congress to change US foreign policy from an overly militarized and security-driven approach to one that prevents, mitigates, and transforms violent conflict and builds sustainable peace.