In 1997, the use, manufacture, and stockpiling of anti-personal land mines was banned via what’s commonly referred to as the Ottowa Treaty. This was mostly as a reaction to the horrific damage land mines cause to civilians. Land mines are cheap and easy to deploy, and armies are able to scatter tens of thousands of them in combat zones. Then they remain there indefinitely, wounding or killing children, farmers, or whoever happens to stumble upon them even decades after the war.
a war crime
The deployment of these simple, cheap anti-personnel mines can easily be considered a war crime. A war crime is either the deliberate targeting of civilians in war, or attacking a military target in a way that causes harm to civilians disproportionate to the military necessity of the strike.
Of course proportionality is somewhat subjective, but the disproportionate harm that these mines inflict on civilians is readily apparent. The military advantage is denying the enemy access to a particular area, route, terrain, or so forth. But even during hostilities, the mines cannot distinguish between soldier and civilian. Then, when the battle is done, that same area remains unfit for civilian use almost forever. The mines are durable and simple, remaining ready to explode when stepped on indefinitely. Clearing mines is extremely time consuming, expensive, and dangerous. Rendering vast swaths of land indefinitely unfit for habitation, while killing and maiming innocent people for decades to come seems pretty hard to justify with any short-term military benefit.
trump reverses obama’s policy
The United States did not join the Ottawa convention, but in 2014 President Obama announced that the United States would abide by all the provisions of the treaty with the exception of the Korean Peninsula. This is because the U.S. military considered anti-personnel mines essential to protecting South Korea from an invasion by the North. Obama expressed the intention of working to find an alternative and eventually removing mines from Korea as well.
Last week the Trump administration announced that it was reversing Obama’s policy. The U.S. military will once again be permitted to deploy anti-personnel land mines around the world. This decision was swiftly condemned by U.S. allies, and all the major Democratic presidential candidates vowed to reverse it upon taking office. Human rights groups bemoaned this decision as another blow from Trump. But the truth is Trump provided what at least appears to be a reasonable rationale for his move.
today’s mines are smart
The Pentagon will still be banned from using the cheap land mines that remain indefinitely. Instead, Trump is approving what he calls a new generation of ‘smart land mines’ that use technology to disable themselves so they don’t remain an indefinite hazard.
These new mines come in two types. The first contain a mechanism that will deactivate the mine after a predetermined time span, often a month. This is accomplished by the mine requiring an electrical voltage in order to detonate. The voltage comes from a battery that is installed or activated when the mine is deployed. Once the battery runs out, there is no voltage and the mine cannot explode.
The problem is that these mines are of limited military use. They cannot be employed to defend a fixed installation such as a base, because those types of defenses have to remain permanently in place. Their only use would be on an actual battlefield, to block off an enemy army’s route of attack, retreat, or supplies.
Unfortunately, these mines would cause problems in that situation too. First, the mines are of limited military value since they will block the movement of whatever army spreads them just as well as its enemy. For this reason many military commanders see mines as having limited value to begin with.
More important, even if the mines deactivate after thirty days, who’s to say that civilians won’t return to the area in which they are spread within that time frame? Let’s say some country gets intelligence that an opposing force may pass through the orchards to attack. So the country scatters a bunch of these smart mines in the orchards, and then the enemy either doesn’t come at all or takes a different route. In the meantime, peasants’ fruits are rotting on the trees, so they return to harvest what they can and encounter the mines. Or refugees from a battle someplace else must cross those orchards when fleeing their homes to safety. The point is that even if the mines are set to disable at a certain time they may very well cause immense civilian harm before that happens.
The other type of smart mine can be deactivated by a radio signal, so in theory after the war the army that deployed the mines can turn them all off. Some have additional features, such that they can be made to move or even detonate on radio command.
The problem with these is that they are also of questionable military usefulness. What if the enemy jams the radio frequency, or even worse steals the password and disables all the mines? And if the mines are equipped with high technology to attempt to protect them from enemy mischief, they become so large and expensive they are no longer cost effective for defense.
There is also the question of reliability. Mine manufacturers claim that the disarming feature will only fail one in a million times. Others claim that is only in the lab, but in the field they may fail up to 1 percent of the time. It’s easy to see how. What if in the mine that requires a battery, the soldier deploying the mine doesn’t insert the battery all the way, so it never makes good contact. Then years later someone kicks the mine, knocking the still fully charged battery into place, and then it goes off? Or on the ones deactivated by radio signal, what if the antenna is damaged, or the mine winds up buried beneath shrapnel, so it never receives the signal to disarm?
If a hundred mines were deployed in a given area and only one remains active, that’s obviously reason enough to forbid anyone from going into that place. And it’s just as slow and difficult to clear an area of a hundred mines as of one. In either case the clearing team has to painstakingly go over the entire area one square foot at a time.
better off without
There’s no question smart mines are far less objectionable than the crude, cheap anti- personnel mines scattered by the tens of thousands in the 20th century. But we’d still be better off if Trump would listen to all of our allies and the enormous chorus of opponents of his decision and not bring back anti- personnel land mines, even if now the mines are smart.
Announcement of Trump’s policy from the U.S. Department of Defense
Reaction of Democratic Presidential Candidates from VOX
Condemnation of Trump’s policy from Human Rights Watch
Information on the harm caused by land mines from Land Mine and Cluster Munition Monitor
Analysis of Trump’s Decision and information on smart land mine reliability from Deutsche Welle
Discussion of the capabilities and limitations of smart mines from Human Rights Watch
Detailed Explanation of how land mines operate, are used, and are cleared by Robert Keeley