Officials said the US would like to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty – also known as the Ottawa Treaty – which bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. Currently, thirty-five countries are not signatories to the treaty including the US, China and Russia.
The White House said it was "diligently pursuing" solutions that would be compliant with the treaty, while also conducting "high fidelity" modelling and simulations to mitigate the risks associated with losing landmine capabilities. It marks a significant shift in US policy; neither the Clinton nor Bush administrations signed the treaty, citing security concerns.
"Other aspects of US landmine policy remain under consideration, and we will share outcomes from this process as we are able to do so," said an administration statement.
According to the UN, landmines kill 15,000 to 20,000 people every year, many of whom are civilians accidentally triggering old devices. Anti-personnel mines are often used as an area denial weapon and, unlike anti-vehicle mines, are easily set off when stepped on.
Human rights groups have welcomed the announcement but say the US should go further if it wishes to accede to the treaty. Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines, hopes the US will "move ahead rapidly", but remains cautious.
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"It makes no sense for the US to acknowledge the weapons should be banned because of the humanitarian harm they cause while retaining the option to use them for years to come," Goose said. "The US should set a target date for joining the Mine Ban Treaty, should commit to no use of the weapons until it accedes, and should begin destruction of all its stockpiles."
Army-technology profiles the longest ongoing arms embargoes by the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN).
Are landmines useful weapons or indiscriminate killers?
Some in the military still consider landmines to be a "valuable tool", including the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey. Landmines are deployed in the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. Officials say the use of landmines deters North Korean soldiers from invading their southern neighbour.
The US is looking at technological solutions which can replace self-destructing landmines including ‘kill switches’, which render them inert after a certain period of time. Another solution being pursued is to stop using landmines altogether and instead use smart artillery rounds and mortars fitted with guidance systems, a former commandant of the Army War College told the Navy Times.
According to Human Rights Watch, the US is believed to have a stockpile of 9 million self-destruct anti-personnel mines which are banned under the Mine Ban Treaty. Despite its significant stockpiles, the US has only used anti-personnel landmines once since the Gulf War according to the Pentagon. The White House says the US is also the world’s single largest financial supporter of humanitarian mine action.
While not a full commitment to joining the Mine Ban Treaty, the US announcement on Friday is still a positive development and a step in the right direction. In a time of warfare, landmines may provide some tactical benefits for troops but in the long term, years after the fighting has finished, their deadly effects are still felt.
Any step which could ultimately lead to the reduction of anti-personnel landmines should be welcomed.