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US under fire for continuing landmine use

US under fire for continuing landmine use

A new American policy decision to continue indefinitely the use of landmines has

triggered explosive reaction from anti-landmine groups. The US however, is urging

critics to consider the entire policy before passing judgment.

Announced on February 27, the new policy marks a change in direction for the USA

on landmines by seeking a balance between taking action to end the humanitarian risks

posed by landmines and the needs of their military defensive capabilities.

The United States now advocates banning all persistent "dumb" landmines

(which remain in the ground until triggered), which it says have caused the "humanitarian

crisis of civilian casualties and continued hazards in cities, towns and farmlands

around the world". Instead, their military will employ "smart" mines

which can be de-activated or detonated on command within 90 days.

This is an about-turn from a Clinton administration pledge to sign the 1999 Ottawa

convention now signed by all other NATO countries that prohibits use of all anti-personnel

mines. Clinton said the US would sign by 2006 if the Pentagon was able to develop

and field an alternative to anti-personnel landmines.

But the latest US policy points to the continued use of landmines indefinitely, albeit

"smart" ones.

"The problem is that while we continue to develop and research alternatives,

they do not yet exist," said US embassy spokesperson Heidi Bronke in Phnom Penh.

"Ottawa would take away from our military defence capabilities. In our view,

the use of mines that self-destruct minimizes humanitarian risk. We view persistent

landmines as the major problem."

While not party to Ottawa, America is a founding member of the first international

anti-landmine treaty, the Amended Mines Protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional

Weapons, which governs the use of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, improvised

explosive devices and booby traps.

The new policy commits to requesting Congress to increase funding for the US Humanitarian

Mine Action Program by 50 percent to $70 million a year for 2005.

Announcing the policy in Washington DC, the special representative for the President

and Secretary of State for mine action, Lincoln Bloomfield, said: "The new policy

demonstrates that our humanitarian and military goals are fully compatible...We can

and will prevent unnecessary harm to innocent civilians and, at the same time, protect

the lives of American service men and women."

But not so, say NGO groups, who condemned the decision to continue production and

use of landmines, smart or otherwise. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines

responded online on March 1, saying there is "no excuse" for the use of

mines which "whether long-lived or self-destructing, put civilian lives at risk".

Human Rights Watch wrote on their website, "Allowing exceptions like smart mines

or border mines would, at best, result in marginal improvements from a humanitarian

perspective." They welcomed America's commitment to stop using persistent anti-vehicle

mines after 2010.

In Cambodia, Christian Provoost, the Mines UXO and Injury Prevention Coordinator

at Handicap International Belgium, said the policy sent the wrong message to countries

still using the weapon, and would create a second tier of landmines: "These

smart landmines would be promoted by rich countries, but other countries will continue

to use all landmines because they will never be able to afford them.".

He questioned the defensive capacities and reliability of "smart" mines.

"We all know that smart landmines are not really smart. There is no proof that

after some time they will automatically de-activate or self-destruct," Provoost


A former deminer and soldier with the Cambodian army, Aki Ra, said he had cleared

many Chinese-produced smart mines in Cambodia. "These smart mines break down

quite easily. It has many mechanisms and is susceptible to water damage. If it remains

a long time in the ground it gets rusty and does not explode. They do not work very

well as they are easy to break," he said.

But Bloomfield said the USA has full confidence in its own smart mine arsenal and

had tested the self-destruct and self-deactivate features of the weapons over 60,000

times with no failure. "So far it's a perfect safety-testing record," he


America is urging critics to look at the overall merits of the policy. "The

$70 million is demonstration of our ongoing commitment to demining," Bronke

said. "The policy may go against world opinion, but at the same time we are

putting a lot of money into clearing landmines. The USA shares the desires to rid

the harmful effects of landmines. It is our opinion this new policy is the most forward

reaching, safest option available."

In the past decade America has contributed $800 million to 46 countries for landmine

clearance, education and survivor assistance.

Richard Boulter from the US-funded de-mining organisation Halo Trust, said although

he was unfamiliar with the details of the latest policy, the American government

had been "incredibly supportive" of landmine clearance in Cambodia and

the rest of the world.

"The Americans have not made the world's landmine problems, and they are doing

a hell of a lot about it. People love to throw rocks at the Americans, but in our

experience, only one percent of landmines we find are American, and 99 percent, or

even more, are either Soviet or Chinese.

"It's the Russian and Chinese munitions that continue to turn up time and time

again, and they haven't signed the Ottawa treaty either. They also have done nothing

to support global landmine clearance."

An official from the Chinese Embassy said the Chinese government supported the removal

and elimination of landmines in Cambodia, and had offered equipment to help reduce

the problem. He did not know whether Chinese landmines were a problem in Cambodia

or whether China has continued their manufacture.

The First Secretary for the Russian Embassy, Alexei Thernov, said at present Russia

did not participate in any de-mining activities or donations in Cambodia. He said

Russia had stopped producing landmines, though was not a signatory of the Ottawa


The new policy marks the first time a major military power has committed to banning

all persistent landmines, both anti-personnel and anti-tank/vehicle.

"Ottawa doesn't address the equally serious problem of anti-tank/vehicle mines,"

Bronke said. Persistent anti-tank mines will be discontinued under the new policy.

Last month, 100 of the 2,400 landmines cleared in Cambodia by Halo were anti-tank/vehicle


Provoost however, disputes putting anti-tank mines on equal footing with anti-personnel


"We have to realize that about 85 to 90 percent of landmines are outside of

the roads. As far as I know, anti-tank mines are only used on roads: that is their

purpose! They do not represent the biggest threat to people affected by landmines.

What is affecting more people is conventional, anti-personnel landmines," he


Key points of the new US landmine


* Elimination of all types of persistent landmines from its arsenal by 2010.
* Continued development and research of non-persistent anti-personnel and anti-tank

landmines and development of alternatives to persistent landmines.

* A commitment to ensure within one year the USA will have no non-detectable landmines

in its arsenal. After which, all mines will meet an international standard of minimum

8 grams iron ore equivalent of metal content to aid reliable detection.

* Soliciting international support for a worldwide ban on the sale and export of

all persistent landmines.

* Persistent anti-personnel landmines will be stockpiled only for use by the US in

fulfillment of treaty obligations with the Republic of Korea.

* Until the end of 2010, persistent anti-vehicle mines will only be employed outside

Korea with authorization of the President.

* Within two years, the US will begin destruction of persistent land mines not needed

for the protection of Korea.

* Requesting from Congress an increase in funding of US Humanitarian Mine Action

Program by 50 percent to $US70 million a year, starting financial year 2005.


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