One hundred days later, Esper still must explain landmine policy reversal

Greg Nash

Throughout the history of warfare, some weapons have been banned because they are inhumane, indiscriminate, and/or pose an ongoing threat to noncombatants long after their use. Landmines are one of those weapons, which is why 164 countries around the world have agreed to ban them by joining the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

Concern about landmines is also why 107 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper 100 days ago, taking issue with the Trump administration’s new policy on these weapons. That policy, first announced in late January, allows for the use of indiscriminate antipersonnel landmines by the U.S. military anywhere in the world. 

These are not weapons we need. Aside from an isolated single use in 2002 in Afghanistan, the United States has not deployed victim-activated antipersonnel mines since 1991, exported them since 1992, or produced them since 1997. While arguing that an exception should exist for landmines on the Korean peninsula, the United States over the past two decades has become by far the world’s largest donor for clearing minefields. And, in fits and starts, has moved closer to joining the Mine Ban Treaty — a treaty that expressly prohibits any use of these weapons and is supported by all our NATO allies.

Congressional leaders, regardless of party, are right to push back and question the policy shift. Sadly, the Department of Defense has, so far, ignored their questions. In response, Congress should redouble its efforts to get answers through public hearings, as well as pursue new legislative restrictions that would block landmine use or production.

Bipartisan Congressional majorities have endorsed ending the further use of landmines, perhaps most strikingly in 2010 when 68 Senators wrote to President Obama that they were confident his administration could “identify any obstacles to joining the Convention and develop a plan to overcome them as soon as possible.” 

When the new policy was announced earlier this year, the Trump administration claimed that times had changed and cited great power competition as the reason for keeping landmines at the ready. It is absurd to think that landmines would be decisive weapons in a battle with China or Russia, especially in Europe where our partners have all forsworn them. In their letter to the Secretary of Defense, the 107 members of Congress asked for the DoD to share the reports and assessments that might back up the Pentagon’s claims. They, and the American public, deserve those answers.

Ultimately, however, Congress and more broadly the American people must have a say in what weapons we employ because military planners can envision scenarios to justify nearly any conceivable weapon. Some weapons never merit use, under any circumstances. The United States has joined treaties banning chemical and biological weapons, and protocols doing the same for blinding lasers. The global community has agreed that landmines also should be prohibited, joined by many in U.S. civil society. Refusing to provide answers as to why the Defense Department concludes differently is dangerous to our democracy and ultimately to innocent victims around the world who make up the vast majority of casualties caused by landmines. 

Jeff Abramson a senior fellow for conventional arms control and transfers at the Arms Control Association.

Tags bipartisan Congress Department of Defense DOD international treaties landmines Mark Esper Mine Ban Treaty National security warfare weapons ban

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