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Monday, March 15, 2004

Land Mine Ban Update

Blogger Mark Kleiman recently argued that the Bush administration's Land Mine policy revision is good -- not a setback, as I previously reported.

In support of his position, Kleiman references an authority. Weapons expert Richard L. Garwin had a piece in the LA Times arguing in support of the US technological solution, which mandates use of self destructing land mines. Thanks to a timing mechanism that has worked extraordinarily well in testing, the US will be able to clear both anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines quickly after a conflict ends.

The Mine Ban Treaty Bans only the former type of mine. Thus, Garwin reasons that the US has the morally superior position.

There are several problems with this analysis.

First, other than the US, what states will have the technology to use self-destructive mines? In the Mine Ban Treaty, 141 states have agreed to ban mines. Another 9 have signed, but not ratified. Given the US past record of keeping relatively advanced defense technology to itself for some years of exclusive use, I doubt the US is about to share this techology with the rest of the world any time soon.

Second, when would mines be removed via self-destruction? Most "wars" these days are civil conflicts, not traditional interstate wars. Mines are thus not used for traditional military reasons. States and opponents alike use mines in order to terrorize and separate civilians -- the mission is not really military. The US technological solution might work just fine if an advancing army puts down mines and then blows them up soon afterwards. But when will any party in a civil war decide that his or her own side is sufficiently safe that it won't need mines?

Mine expert Ken Rutherford told me two weeks ago that ethnic "borders" are demarcated throughout the former Yugoslavia with land mines. The parties there have no interest in de-mining those lines.

Of course, the current anti-personnel Mine Ban Treaty strictly limits the global supply of mines. Many states that might otherwise sell them are now obliged not to participate in the global marketplace. If the US is selling mines, of whatever technical capability, the market is going to be open. Both Russia and China refuse to join the Mine Ban Treaty in part because the US will not.

To tie this to my first point, how long will it be before Russia or China have self-destructive mines?

Third, what happens until 2010? The US is still using the traditional type of land mine in Korea. Since it is not a member of the Treaty, the US could simply reverse current policy pronouncements and use old-fashioned mines wherever it wants. The US could decide tomorrow to deploy mines in Iraq, for example. This would set a terrible example for a world moving toward an outright ban based on the immorality of the weapon.

Garwin doesn't devote space to explain why the US actually might need mines for traditional security reasons. As I said before, quoting Rutherford, the overwhelming majority of victims of mines are civilians, not soldiers, and they occur after the war, not during the fighting.

Why are these land mines needed, whether low or high tech?

Would Kleiman and Garwin alternatively support an additional treaty banning anti-vehicular mines? Would the US?

Perhaps that is the morally superior position.

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