After 10-Year Hiatus, Pentagon Eyes New Landmine

The George W. Bush administration may soon resume production of antipersonnel land mines in a move that is at odds with both the international community and previous U.S. policy on the weapons, says a leading human rights organization.

In December of this year, the Pentagon will decide whether or not to begin producing a new type of antipersonnel land mine called a "Spider." The first of these mines would then be scheduled to roll out in early 2007.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the funds for Spider’s production are already earmarked, as the Pentagon has requested $1.3 billion for the mine system, as well as for another mine called the Intelligent Munitions System, which is expected to be fully running by 2008.

A new report by the HRW issued Wednesday notes these weapons that kill and maim an estimated 500 people, mostly civilians, each week. The group called on the Bush administration to halt all research and development on all types of these widely-banned weapons.

"With very few exceptions, nearly every nation has endorsed the goal of a global ban on all antipersonnel mines at some point in the future," the HRW report says. "Such acts [by the U.S.] would clearly be against the trend of the emerging international consensus against any possession or use of antipersonnel mines."

The U.S. has not used antipersonnel land mines since the 1991 Gulf War, when it scattered over 100,000 land mines from planes in Iraq and Kuwait, according to HRW. Then, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed into law a moratorium introduced by Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy on the export of all antipersonnel land mines.

In 1994 the U.S. called for the "eventual elimination" of all such mines and in 1996, President Bill Clinton said the U.S. would "seek a worldwide agreement as soon as possible to end the use of all antipersonnel mines." The U.S. produced its last antipersonnel land mine in 1997.

It has also been the stated objective of the U.S. government that it would someday join the 145 countries party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which bans the use, production, exporting, and stockpiling of antipersonnel land mines.

However, the Bush administration made an about-face in U.S. antipersonnel land mine policy in February 2004, when it abandoned any pretense of joining the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention.

"The United States will not join the Ottawa Convention because its terms would have required us to give up a needed military capability," the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs said in a statement in February 2004, summing up the administration’s new policy.

"Landmines still have a valid and essential role protecting United States forces in military operations. … No other weapon currently exists that provides all the capabilities provided by landmines."

It was this policy, HRW says, that laid the groundwork for the U.S. government’s new antipersonnel land mine slated for production as early as 2007.

"We are beginning to see the bitter fruit of the new Bush administration land mine policy," Steve Goose, director of HRW’s arms division said in a statement. "The U.S. appears well on the way to resuming production of antipersonnel mines. Renewed export and renewed use of these inhumane weapons may not be far behind."

However, there are reports that the U.S. use of antipersonnel land mines may already have occurred or be occurring now.

The Pentagon is yet to confirm or deny reports that the U.S. government was to begin deploying a remote-controlled antipersonnel land mine system called Matrix to Iraq. A total of 25 of these mine systems, which can be detonated from a distance via radio signal, have allegedly been sent to Iraq in May of this year for use by the U.S. Army’s Stryker Brigade, the report says.

Given the immensity of international support for the banning of antipersonnel land mines, if the Pentagon does resume production of the weapons, diplomatic problems are almost certain to ensue.

"If they go ahead and do this, they will really be breaking some new ground," Mary Wareham, a senior advocate in HRW’s arms division, told IPS. "It will be a massive step backwards for the U.S. in terms of making any good will. If they did it, it would be bad news all around and I’m sure that there would be protests."

The 145 parties to the Ottawa Convention are also forbidden to "assist" others in acts that are prohibited by the treaty. Therefore, U.S. military allies could be at risk of breaching the treaty in joint military operations where antipersonnel land mines are being used.