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Why is Biden’s DoD standing behind Trump’s retrograde landmine policy?

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Is the Biden Administration planning to end the retrograde policy of producing landmines for the U.S. defense arsenal? For now, it seems, no.

According to a Defense Department statement received and published on Twitter by Daily Beast reporter Spencer Ackerman, the military is standing behind changes made by the Trump Administration in January 2020 that put the U.S. off the track of joining the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. It also re-opened the door to “planning for and use” of these ghastly weapons, which according to one statistic, have been responsible for 120,000 people killed and maimed since 1999. The vast majority (87 percent) were civilians; half (47 percent) were children.

The DoD believes that the risk of harm due to landmine accidents can be mitigated by new technological advancements in which the weapons can  be turned on and off or go into self-destruct mode at an appointed time after they are positioned. According to the January 2020 policy statement

The United States will not sacrifice American servicemembers’ safety, particularly when technologically advanced safeguards are available that allow landmines to be employed responsibly to ensure our military’s warfighting advantage, and limit the risk of unintended harm to civilians.  These safeguards require landmines to self-destruct, or in the event of a self-destruct failure, to self-deactivate within a prescribed period of time.

This Trump policy reversed an Obama order in 2014 that banned all landmine use outside of the Korean Peninsula and kept the country on the (long) track of getting into the landmark 1997 ban that has been already ratified by 164 countries. The Trump administration instead said landmines with self-destruct/deactivation technology can be used anywhere.

My colleague Mark Perry wrote a wonderful piece for The American Conservative last year that underscored the military politics of the issue. While “there was little support for landmine use among senior officers” back in 1996 before the international ban went into effect, the Pentagon kept the weapons around, mostly due to the fact that the military saw a potential ban as a “slippery slope.” 

“Once the NGOs force the Army to get rid of landmines,” said Army Chief Dennnie Reimer, back in 1996, “which service will be next to be disarmed?” This sentiment said Perry, who worked on the landmine ban issue back then, started to “take root” among the forces, and never left. They just poured a lot of money into “safe landmines” that, Perry pointed out, have their troubles too.

“Mines that are designed to self-destruct or deactivate are no better able to distinguish civilian from combatant,” according to Human Rights Watch. “They still pose unacceptable risks for civilians. Civilians in ‘smart’ minefields not only face the danger of triggering mines that have failed to self-destruct, but the danger of those mines randomly self-destructing at unknown times.” 

Sadly the 2020 policy set back the anti-mine movement back decades. Another colleague, Jess Lee, pointed out to me that activists have been working tirelessly to de-mine the Korean peninsula, and it didn’t help that even the 2014 Obama rules carved Korea out for the ban.

“The DMZ and surrounding areas are covered with nearly a million landmines, laid by the U.S. and ROK forces during and after the Korean War,” she told me today. “It would be unfortunate if the Biden administration does not see a problem with maintaining the Trump-era policy of allowing it to be used everywhere, including on the Korean Peninsula.”

As Perry wrote, “the landmine issue is (manifestly) a footnote when compared to the globe’s other threats, like nuclear proliferation and climate change. But it remains a useful talisman of how change happens (or doesn’t) in Washington.”

Wise words indeed.

UPDATE 4/8/21: Biden’s UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield issued remarks today at the UN Security Council ministerial open debate on mine action, in which he addressed this week’s landmine headlines. It is clear that Spencer Ackerman’s initial Tweet with the DoD statement snapped the administration into action. But in a good way, for anti-landmine efforts:

President Biden believes we need to curtail the use of landmines. Now, there has been some discussion of the previous administration’s landmine policy this week, so let me speak plainly: 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. 

UPDATE 4/7/21: There have been some clarifications issued since yesterday’s statement to Ackerman got a good drubbing throughout the social media universe and among anti-mine advocacy networks.

Alex Ward at Vox produced this statement from the National Security Council:

And Jeff Seldin at VOA, with this Pentagon update:

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