On Friday the 31st of January, the Trump Administration rolled back restrictions on American military use of anti-personnel land mines. These policies, set in place during the Obama Administration, ensured that the United States would no longer produce or acquire anti-personnel land mines, with the long-term aim of replacing U.S. stockpiles. Furthermore, land mine use was restricted outside of the Korean Peninsula. The new policies remove geographic limitations, and have allowed new deployment of the devices.
American Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking at a news conference, reiterated that American forces needed the ability to deploy land mines. “Land mines are an important tool that our forces need to have available to them in order to ensure mission success and in order to reduce risk to forces,” Esper said. He added, “That said, in everything we do we also want to make sure that these instruments, in this case land mines, also take into account both the safety of employment and the safety to civilians and others after a conflict.” Reuters reports that the White House statement on the new policy emphasises that this “will authorize Combatant Commanders, in exceptional circumstances, to employ advanced, non-persistent landmines specifically designed to reduce unintended harm to civilians and partner forces.”
Anti-personnel land mines have drawn significant, and well-deserved, criticism. A typical land mine consists of a small explosive charge, which is rigged to detonate when pressure is applied. The device is subsequently buried, and remains underground until it is triggered, or disarmed. The original issue with land mines, and one of the major reasons for the global shift away from their use, is that they remain in locations long after a conflict has ended. In nations such as Laos and Vietnam, land mines which were deployed in the 1960s and 1970s continue to exact a heavy toll on civilians today, over 50 years after the United States withdrew from the region. A report published by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 2018 found that the devices killed or injured some 6,987 people worldwide in a single year, with 71% of these casualties being civilians. Children made up more than half of the civilian casualties. The devices responsible for these casualties were typically laid by non-state groups, such as ISIS, but their use continues to signify an international issue.
The policy implemented by the Trump Administration is not necessarily a return to old ways. There is already a massive stigma against the use of land mines, and this is supported by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty which over 160 nations have ratified. However, the United States is not a signatory to this treaty. The new policy being pursued by the Americans is not necessarily going against the international world, as it is not allowing the U.S. military unmitigated access to these devices. Instead, it will only allow the American military to use land mines that can self-destruct in 30 days or less, and contain extra deactivation features to ensure this policy can be pursued. While this is a more humane form of land mine (in terms of limiting civilian casualties), it does not wholly solve the issue. Land mines are an incredibly violent, and morally questionable, weapon. Hidden devices that have the potential to cripple, if not outright kill, with completely indiscriminate targeting, can hardly be called ethical. Undeniably, this new American policy is a step backwards.
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