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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 47, June 2000

Toward a Genuine Humanitarian Landmine Regime
By Dale Copper


The landmine policy debate is popularly viewed as a contest between humanitarian and military factors. But closer examination finds little difference between what is needed to meet humanitarian objectives and what is needed to meet military objectives. It is not difficult to devise a single policy that meets both more effectively than any agreement or national policy now in effect. The real debate is between humanitarian and military objectives on the one hand, and political objectives on the other.

Begin with two basic facts:

1. The essence of the humanitarian landmine problem is persistence. Mines are the only manufactured weapons that, by design, remain lethal for long periods of time regardless of whether the conflict is still raging or has been long forgotten.

But are not landmines also indiscriminate, unable to distinguish between a soldier and a child? This is true, but no more so than it is true of every other weapon of war, and it creates no more need for a mine ban than for an artillery ban or a mortar ban. Landmines are a humanitarian issue solely because their persistence eventually overrides whatever discrimination may have been exercised by the operator.

As Jody Williams stressed in her 1997 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, "The crux of the problem is that while the use of the weapon might be militarily justifiable during the day of the battle, or even the two weeks of the battle, or maybe even the two months of the battle, once peace is declared the landmine does not recognise that peace. The landmine is eternally prepared to take victims.... The war ends, the landmine goes on killing."

2. The landmine problem is not confined to anti-personnel landmines. Anti-vehicle landmines (AVL) do not kill as many civilians as anti-personnel landmines (APL), but the loss of life, limb, and land to AVL is nevertheless unacceptably high.

Humanitarian considerations

The basic measure of the humanitarian landmine problem is the mine-year. (One mine-year is one mine that, if emplaced, will be lethal for one year.) As a rough but plausible approximation, a persistent mine will remain functional for 30 years after emplacement, thus creating 30 mine-years. The humanitarian solution is to reduce the world's stockpiled mine-years by 99.9% or more. This can be done by application of two technologies:

Self-destruction (SD) is a timing device, activated when the mine is emplaced. When the timer reaches its set point, the mine explodes. SD is the most desirable solution because it leaves no residual object for deminers to remove. Its downside is that defects in design or production could cause the SD to fail, which would leave a lethal mine persistent for decades.

Self-deactivation (SDA) is a passive process in which an essential component of the mine exhausts itself so that the mine can no longer function as a mine. That is, the battery dies at a predictable time. The advantage of SDA is that it always works. Its disadvantage is that the mine remains in place and, although non-hazardous, will still cause concern.

The effective solution is the combination of self-destruction and self-deactivation (SD-SDA). If the SD works, nothing will be left behind. If SD fails, SDA will then render the mine inoperable. If all landmines were short-duration, the humanitarian problem of landmines would be no worse than that of other weapons. Further, since the hazardous dud rate of modern short-duration APL is much less than that of ordinary shells and bombs, the former are possibly the lesser humanitarian problem.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask why the world should not just eliminate APL anyway for the sake of form, even if there is no humanitarian reason to do so. The answer is that giving up APL is difficult for an army that values the lives of its troops and the civilians they protect.

Military Considerations

It cannot plausibly be denied that landmines are effective weapons. They offer at least three military assets not otherwise attainable:

Psychological impact. If an adversary has to cross a field covered by fire, he can tell himself that the faster and smarter he is, the better his chance of reaching the other side alive. Against mines, speed and tactics are irrelevant, and feelings of helplessness and panic are created.

Low cost, high accuracy. Mines explode only when they are sufficiently close to their target. This enables a high probability of destroying the target with a small explosive.

Wide time bandwidth. Every other type of point-target weapon requires the operator to know the target's location in real time. Mines require only that the operator expect the target to pass through at any time within the active life of the mine.

Modern vs. traditional landmines. The generic military advantages of landmines notwithstanding, the fact remains that traditional mine use is better at killing innocent civilians than at defending against a military force.

Under the traditional concept of landmine use, which is common practice in the Third World, persistent landmines are slowly emplaced by hand to form an unattended barrier. Since the adversary is not under fire and not under time constraints, he can at leisure breach a lane through the minefield. But the rest of the minefield, unless cleared by humanitarian deminers, remains ready for decades to kill without mercy or discrimination. Its victims include friendly forces as well as civilians.

Recognising this, in the late 1970s advanced armies began to change to modern short-duration landmines emplaced rapidly by artillery or aircraft. Modern commanders do not expect landmines to provide a permanent unattended defence against military attack. Minefields should be covered by fire and, even so, will provide only temporary protection until additional force can be brought to bear. But this precious window of time can be the difference between life and death for friendly forces and the civilians they may be sent to protect.

Modern remotely-delivered landmines are sometimes described as a greater humanitarian problem because they can be rapidly scattered over a wide area. In reality, remote delivery reduces the humanitarian problem. Because they can be rapidly emplaced where and when the defender needs them, remotely delivered landmines enable defence of a given effectiveness using fewer landmines. Then after doing their job, the mines quickly self-destruct (four hours is the common SD time) so that the defender can move back through his own minefield.

In most situations, AVL are more important than APL. Indeed, the primary function of APL is to "escort" the AVL and hamper their removal in combat. One modern APL is sufficient to protect four or more AVL.

It is sometimes argued that equipping the AVL with anti-handling devices, which explode if the mine is disturbed, can eliminate the need for APL protection. But recent studies find this substitution would increase friendly casualties 25%. Against a field of AVL with anti-handling devices, sappers can rapidly and safely run through, placing explosives next to each mine with no need to handle it. Additionally, dismounted infantry can ignore the mines and advance unimpeded. In contrast, the presence of APL renders either tactic impossible, and increases the time needed to breach the minefield by three to ten times.

The Humanitarian Landmine Regime (HLR): Optimising Humanitarian and Military Factors Simultaneously

A genuine Humanitarian Landmine Regime (herein named HLR) is not difficult to devise. Both humanitarian and military interests would best be served by a worldwide agreement banning all, but only, those landmines, APL and AVL alike, with any of three characteristics:

1. Persistence. While there are some situations in which persistence traditionally has been advantageous, rapidly re-seedable short-duration mines combined with non-explosive sensors can adequately substitute for persistence. The humanitarian benefit of banning all persistent landmines would far exceed that of banning all APL, while at the same time allowing military forces the protection of responsible mine use.

2. Concealment. Landmines can be concealed by buried emplacement, by non-metallic construction, or both. Concealed mines are, obviously, far more difficult for humanitarian deminers to locate and remove. But the military advantages of concealment are obsolete. A modern APL with long self-deployed triplines does not need to be buried because its sensors and lethality reach meters beyond the actual location of the mine. Similarly, nonmetallic construction is of no help in combat because military mine breaching is brute-force area lane creation that does not need to locate individual mines.

3. Anti-detector capability. A feature that causes a mine to explode when a detector is passed over it would constitute a major threat to deminers but would be of no military use.


The primary humanitarian landmine agreement, which most closely approaches the HLR, is the 1996 Amended Mines Protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Statements to the contrary notwithstanding, CCW is not a step toward an APL ban. It was never intended to be. It recognises that landmines are useful weapons. It is a humanitarian arms control measure for the purpose of eliminating the uniquely severe landmine-caused loss of civilian life, limb and land.

CCW bans persistent APL that are remotely delivered or used outside of areas marked and monitored to effectively exclude civilians. No more than one in one thousand APL so used may continue to function 120 days after emplacement, and at least 90% of the mines must self-destruct within 30 days of emplacement. Nonmetallic APL are banned altogether, as are anti-detector AVL and APL.

Ottawa Convention

The Ottawa Convention is, by its stated intent, a total ban on production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of APL, and a requirement for destruction of APL stockpiles. It is not intended to impact AVL. Whether it meets either intent is open to question, as we will see below.

US policy. Published accounts generally describe the need to use APL in Korea as the reason why the United States has not joined the Ottawa Convention. It is true that the military need for mines is greatest in Korea, and that the Clinton Administration exempts Korea from its unilateral prohibition against persistent APL use. Nevertheless, the Korean requirement for persistent mines is secondary, and could be removed within a few years by new developments in short-duration mines. The primary reason the US cannot join the Ottawa convention is its need to use rapidly emplaceable short-duration APL to protect its forces worldwide.

CCW and Ottawa Convention Compared

Central objective. The purpose of CCW is humanitarian arms control. The purpose of the Ottawa APL-ban convention is political, as was stated, with commendable clarity and honesty, by the Canadian government in 1997.1

This distinction is not merely semantic; it leads to significant operational differences. Consider, for example, a country wishing to replace its 30-year persistent APL with an equal number of 4-hour short-duration APL. From the CCW humanitarian perspective, this would constitute a 99.998% reduction in mine-years: as good as an APL ban. From the Ottawa political perspective, all APL are the same and saving lives by eliminating mine-years would be of no value.

Text. Ottawa bans short-duration APL; CCW does not. CCW covers non-APL inhumane weapons; Ottawa does not. CCW defines its terms precisely; Ottawa does not.

Membership. The membership of each regime reflects its central objective.

For political image purposes, sponsors of the Ottawa Convention have sought the maximum number of countries. But in keeping with their humanitarian purpose, sponsors of CCW concentrated their efforts on the nations with the most landmines, and made no vigorous effort to bring in states lacking landmine significance.

Each body has gotten what it sought. Ottawa has the flags and CCW has the APL. Ottawa's ninety-some parties stockpile about one billion APL-years, while CCW's forty-some parties stockpile about four billion APL-years.

Vulnerability to circumvention. The Ottawa convention contains an unintended loophole that allows any nation to produce, transfer, stockpile and use APL without restriction. It defines an anti-personnel mine as: "...a mine designed to be exploded by the ... contact of a person.... Mines designed to be detonated by the... contact of a vehicle as opposed to a person, that are equipped with anti-handling devices, are not considered anti-personnel mines as a result of being so equipped." It then defines an anti-handling device as: "A device intended to protect a mine and which is... linked to... the mine and which activates when an attempt is made to...intentionally disturb the mine."

Under this definition, one can take several hundred APL of the worst kind - persistent, non-detectable, with anti-detector devices - linked with a sewing thread to a single AVL, and call the resulting system an Ottawa-compliant AVL with a lot of linked anti-handling devices.

CCW avoids this vulnerability by use of one additional word, defining an anti-personnel mine as: "a mine primarily designed to be exploded by the...contact of a person" (italics added).

Under CCW, a system with many more AP than AV units obviously is primarily designed to function as an APL and is, therefore, an APL. Under Ottawa, primary design is of no significance, so circumvention is readily feasible.

AVL impact. In theory, AVL are outside the scope of the Ottawa Convention but within the scope of CCW. In practice, Ottawa's AVL coverage could be none or very large, depending on what is done with a badly drafted sentence in it. CCW's AVL restrictions are carefully crafted and, while presently modest, could be greatly strengthened by later amendment.

The Ottawa complication arises in that almost all modern AVL use magnetic sensors. Designed to sense the metal of a tank, they also respond to the magnetic field of the Earth. If a person walking along unintentionally kicks a mine and causes it to rotate, it will perceive the change in orientation of the Earth's magnetic field as a tank passing over it, and probably will explode.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Canadian government maintain that modern anti-vehicle mines are designed so that they will explode from this kind of contact of a person and they are, therefore, APL and banned by the Ottawa Convention under the definitions quoted above. Other NATO Ottawa-member governments, determined not to give up their AVL, are desperately trying to ignore this point. The outcome remains to be seen.

Since magnetic AVL are usually short duration while simple pressure-activated AVL are persistent, the ICBL/Canadian position would ban short-duration AVL that are not a humanitarian problem, while permitting persistent AVL that are.

CCW does not mention anti-vehicle or anti-tank mines as such, and its use of the word "primarily" saves it from equating APL with magnetic AVL. Instead, it applies some restrictions to all landmines, AVL and APL alike. Its more rigorous restrictions currently apply to APL alone.

General Munition Coverage

Another line of reasoning gaining ground among the mine-ban community holds that (1) all explosive munitions are designed with a non-zero hazardous dud rate, (2) hazardous duds will explode from contact of a person (3) therefore all explosive munitions are "designed to be exploded from contact of a person", are APL, and are banned by the Ottawa Convention.

Farfetched as this may seem, it is in fact an accurate description of what the Ottawa Convention, says, albeit unintentionally. Ottawa parties must either give up all explosive munitions or withdraw from the treaty. This is not an issue for CCW. The key qualifier "primarily" prevents CCW from considering all explosive munitions to be APL.

Compliance. In the Third World, where most recent mine use has occurred, the Ottawa Convention's reach appears to exceed its grasp. Typical is Angola, which has signed Ottawa but continues to openly lay APL anyway. Elsewhere, one would be hard pressed to name a single government now engaged in hostilities that has stopped using APL because of the Ottawa Convention. Since CCW allows continued responsible but effective APL use, it is reasonable to expect high compliance. But at this point the evidence is not in.

A useful analogy can be made to restrictions on alcoholic beverages. When the United States attempted total prohibition in the 1920s, it failed because the measure was more sweeping than the population would accept. But more narrowly focussed recent campaigns against drunk driving have had considerable success.

The Rise and Decline of the APL Ban

The APL-ban movement has sometimes been derided as "Woodstock North." This is largely inaccurate. Mine ban is not a counterculture movement like the recent campaign against the World Bank. On the contrary, its political success stems from its sharp focus on mainstream public and government opinion.

It cannot be denied that the ICBL has run an outstandingly capable political campaign. Public persuasion of comparable scale and effectiveness has not been seen since 1980, when Ronald Reagan convinced the American people that he could escalate defence spending, slash taxes, and balance the budget at the same time. But the APL-ban campaign also benefitted from a number of lucky breaks that dropped into its lap. Chief among these was political misjudgement by the United States.

As the prime mover behind the CCW, the US is the world moral and humanitarian leader on mine policy - a fact the US government has gone to great and inexplicable effort to obscure. The US engaged on the mine-ban issue too late and too little. Had the Clinton Administration mounted an early and vigorous promotion of short duration mines, CCW, and its leadership on both, there probably would be no Ottawa Convention today.

Instead, the US government took no part in the public APL-ban debate for years while the ICBL ranged unopposed over the political landscape defining the terms of the debate, establishing APL-ban as a "motherhood" issue, and winning majority support in the US Congress.

Finally deciding to engage publicly in 1997, the US blundered further by deciding not to stress the diplomatic case for short-duration and CCW. Instead, the US compounded its disadvantage by taking the bizarre and untenable position that APL somehow became not-APL if they were packaged together with AVL in "mixed systems." It sought to define the APL in mixed systems as "anti-handling devices" or "just little kinds of explosives". This tortured gymnastic gave the ICBL a fat target it gleefully exploited.

In December 1997, the Ottawa Convention was signed and the Nobel Peace Prize given to the ICBL and Jody Williams. But ironically, this month of the crowning achievements of the mine-ban movement also marked the beginning of its rapid decline.

Some troubles may be due to internal disagreements over how the money was used. But larger forces have also been at work. In the United States, a late but effective education campaign by the Department of Defence explained short duration to the Congress and, to a lesser extent, the public. Today the mine ban would be hard pressed to demonstrate support from 30% of the US Congress, and the SD-SDA solution is supported by most news media commentary. Worldwide, a degree of "ratification regret" has set in among Ottawa members as governments recognise that what they thought was a major humanitarian advance is going to cause significant security problems without living up to its billing as a humanitarian solution.2

Conclusion: The Road to HLR…

... lies through CCW. The Ottawa Convention is off-target, banning short-duration weapons that are not a humanitarian problem while protecting persistent AVL that are, and it has no charter to grow into clear AVL coverage. CCW doesn't go far enough, in that it permits persistent APL under some conditions and persistent AVL under all conditions. But CCW is a large and effective step in the right direction, and is structurally capable of growth into an HLR at its Review Conference planned for 2001.

At this point only one country has stated support for a total ban on persistent landmines, and it is unlikely to take initiatives that direction. The United States is confining itself to pressing for useful but modest improvements, including bans on non-detectable AVL and on persistent remotely-delivered AVL.

It can be argued that the fate of future landmine victims now lies mainly in the hands of the NGOs. While their influence has much diminished since 1997, it remains substantial. Vigorous NGO advocacy of an HLR could provide the seed crystal leading to a successful HLR amendment to CCW.

Presently, some of the landmine NGOs are devoting their energies to generating support for the Ottawa Convention as a political trophy. Some are attempting to corrupt CCW by imposing on it, as an act of tribute to the Ottawa Convention, the defective Ottawa definitions. Taking the political trophy drive to the extreme, others openly oppose improving CCW's APL provisions, fearing that would reduce the need for the Ottawa Convention The humanitarian impact of these activities is negative. The HLR question now is whether the landmine NGOs can summon the moral courage to subordinate the political concerns to the humanitarian.

Notes and References

1. At a October 10, 1997 United Nations NGO Association panel discussion of the Ottawa Convention, the US Government representative argued: "I want to make a plea that we treat this, not as a political issue, but as a humanitarian issue. Now, in politics we all know that many times we start with our conclusion…and then we select our evidence and squeeze the facts to make them fit into that conclusion. Here we're dealing with real people's lives and limbs: the civilians who will be killed or maimed by anti-personnel landmines if we don't do the right thing, the civilians who may be killed or maimed by the lack of anti-personnel mines if the soldiers who are trying to protect them don't have the APL to use. We need to balance all that, and we need to do it not in a pre-judged way, but by beginning with the evidence and proceeding through reasoning to conclusion." To this the Canadian Government's representative responded: "When [the US representative] urged us to remove this from politics and bring it back to the realm of humanitarian concerns, I think he entirely missed the point. This is about politics."

2. For example, Norway is one of the leading Ottawa states, and the prohibition against APL use on one's own soil is at the core of the Ottawa Convention. Yet as a Norwegian official said recently: "The only time we'd need to use APL on our territory is if we're invaded. And if that happens, don't think we're going to pay any attention to this treaty."

Dale Copper is a researcher on the military and technical aspects of anti-personnel landmines.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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