As a physicist who has spent a half-century working for national security and arms control, I am dismayed by many acts of the Bush administration, including its dangerous opposition to the nuclear test ban. But the administration deserves credit for one thing that is very right: its new policy on land mines.
Once laid, land mines explode when they sense a target. The key to their military usefulness is that only they can provide defense throughout the duration of a battle or even a war. But that is also the key to their humanitarian menace. Many mines remain active indefinitely. Long after the battle has ended, they may destroy civilian lives, limbs, land and livelihood.
But mines need not remain dangerous. They can contain timing mechanisms that will cause them to self-destruct after a set period, and they can be powered by batteries, so that, if self-destruction fails, the battery will die and the mine will be deactivated. Most mines now in U.S. stockpiles are designed to self-destruct four hours after emplacement; some can be set for as long as 30 days, the maximum for such mines allowed under the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which the U.S. has ratified. The reliability of the self-destruction mechanisms is high: In more than 65,000 tests, no activated U.S. mine has failed to self-destruct.
The essence of Bush’s new policy is that after 2010, the U.S. will no longer use any persistent land mines -- that is, mines that do not self-destruct or self-deactivate -- and after 2004, the United States will not use nonmetallic mines, which are difficult to detect. The measures cover not only antipersonnel land mines but also those that target vehicles.
The United States is the first major nation to take these humanitarian steps, which make it the world’s moral leader in land mine policy.
Nevertheless, some have criticized the new policy because it doesn’t include joining the so-called Mine Ban Treaty. In fact, there is no Mine Ban Treaty. This misnomer is sometimes applied to the 1997 Ottawa Convention, which bans antipersonnel mines but freely permits all types of anti-vehicle mines.
Dividing the land mine universe this way makes little sense. Decades after a conflict has ended, persistent anti-vehicle mines continue to kill people in buses and trucks. By causing road closures, they prevent refugees from returning to their lands and keep humanitarian assistance from getting to where it is needed. Currently, for example, 70% of the main roads in Angola are blocked by anti-vehicle mines.
Thus, there are now two partial mine bans: the Ottawa Convention, which permits only anti-vehicle mines, and the new U.S. policy that permits only self- destructing mines.
To compare them, imagine two minefields: one laid by the U.S. and one by, say, Belgium, a signatory of the Ottawa Convention. Both are deadly weapons of war. The U.S. minefield contains antipersonnel and anti-vehicle mines that self-destruct in 30 days or less.
The other contains anti-vehicle mines that will be active indefinitely, and the Ottawa Convention also permits it to contain some anti-vehicle mines that are nonmetallic and that will explode if a person accidentally kicks one and turns it over.
Three months later, the U.S. minefield will be perfectly safe. But after three months, or three years or three decades, the Ottawa-compliant field will be as dangerous as the day it was laid. Clearly, the Bush plan is more humanitarian than the Ottawa Convention.
Why not also join the Ottawa Convention? That would do little more to reduce post-combat civilian casualties, but because it would ban the use of all antipersonnel mines, it would gravely increase the risk to our ground forces during combat, and to those civilians they may be sent to protect.
The Bush White House has done the right thing, setting a course the world would do well to follow. The U.S. plan is what the Ottawa Convention should have been.