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