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Biden administration to reverse Trump-era rules on land mines

UPDATED: Tue., June 21, 2022

President Biden delivers remarks before signing the Ocean Shipping Act into law at the White House on June 16. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
President Biden delivers remarks before signing the Ocean Shipping Act into law at the White House on June 16. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
By Missy Ryan Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is banning the use of land mines by the United States across most of the globe, in a decision that reverses Trump-era rules allowing greater employment of the weapons that are blamed for killing thousands of civilians a year — most of them children.

The move, which the White House announced Tuesday, caps an extended internal review of a policy enacted in early 2020 that empowered military commanders to use the mines globally in certain situations. It allows the United States to use the weapons along ally South Korea’s border with North Korea, though U.S. mines are not currently placed there.

Officials said the new policy reflected the Biden administration’s belief that human rights must be a significant factor when considering when to use weapons or provide them to other countries.

“The United States’ new policy on anti-personnel land mines is centered on people,” Bonnie Jenkins, undersecretary for arms control and international security, told reporters by phone.

U.S. officials say anti-personnel mines used by various nations kill about 7,000 people a year, the vast majority of whom are civilians. At least half of the victims are believed to be children. In places such as Afghanistan and Yemen, land mines have remained a hidden peril following conflicts, sowing farmlands or mountain paths with invisible and long-lasting danger.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group, welcomed the new policy but said the United States must take the steps needed to join the Ottawa Convention, a 1997 treaty that prohibits participating nations from using, transferring or stockpiling weapons categorized as anti-personnel mines.

“We are still out of step with most of the world,” Kimball said. “The administration needs to move more quickly to bring us in line.”

While the United States remains ineligible to join the Ottawa treaty because of its refusal to forswear land mine use entirely, U.S. officials say they hope to do so if alternate weapons can be developed to safeguard South Korea’s border with North Korea.

The new policy will bring the United States into compliance with most aspects of the treaty, prohibiting the production and purchase of the mines, and banning their export and transfer except when necessary for their destruction. The regulations also commit the United States to destroying existing U.S. mines that are not deemed necessary in South Korea.

The U.S. stockpile includes some 3 million anti-personnel mines, all of which have self-destruction or self-deactivation features. The United States has employed anti-personnel mines once since the Ottawa treaty came into effect, in Afghanistan.

As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to roll back what he characterized as President Donald Trump’s “reckless” stance on mines. Officials have framed the policy, which is identical to the Obama administration’s rules. as further proof of the Biden administration’s commitment to civilians’ welfare and to human rights. The United States is also the largest supporter of efforts to destroy conventional weapons including land mines and other unexplored munitions.

Critics say the Biden administration’s actions have failed to match its rhetoric in other areas related to human rights, including its support for leaders who have overseen widespread abuses. The new policy comes ahead of Biden’s expected meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., urged the Defense Department, where senior officials have voiced support for land mine use, to quickly implement the new policy.

“This is long overdue recognition that the grave humanitarian and political costs of using these weapons far exceed their limited military utility,” said Leahy, who has long advocated for an end to land mine use, in a statement.

Annie Shiel, an official at the Centers for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), said the task ahead was now a full ban of the weapons “without exception.” “Land mines are indiscriminate weapons that cause devastating harm to civilians for decades after they are used,” she said.

The new rules strip the Pentagon of authority over the issue, giving control to the White House.

When the 2020 regulations were unveiled, the Pentagon characterized land mines as valuable in protecting troops from being overrun or channeling enemy forces into areas where they can be attacked. That policy permitted military commanders to order the use of some land mines in combat as long as they had a self-destruct or self-deactivation feature.

“The United States will not sacrifice American servicemembers’ safety,” a senior Pentagon official said at the time.

Military leaders have also supported the use of mines since Biden took office. In April, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, characterized the mines as an important wartime tool.

“Antitank or antipersonnel mines are a very effective use in combat,” he said, noting the necessity of ensuring the weapons do not remain active after conflicts.

The State Department official said Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during the review process “had the opportunity to raise the need that they feel that they had for land mines with the White House and talk about their operational effectiveness, but this was the decision.”

The Biden administration has highlighted the toll that land mines are taking in the war in Ukraine, where officials say Russia has planted mines indiscriminately. While Russia is not party to the Ottawa convention, Ukraine is a signatory.

Karen Chandler, an acting deputy assistant secretary of state, said there was “no credible evidence of Ukraine using [anti-personnel mines], currently or during Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014.”

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