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US bucks pledge, continues to pursue new landmines

Christian Avard
Published: Monday June 19, 2006

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Ten years after US President Bill Clinton declared the country would "aggressively pursue an international agreement to ban the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of anti-personnel landmines," the US has moved no closer to eliminating the weapons, and is in fact developing new types of mines, RAW STORY has learned.

According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, budget documents submitted to Congress in 2005 show that the Pentagon is preparing for the development of new types of antipersonnel landmines called "Spider."

The flip of a switch

Spider landmines differ from conventional mines because they are designed to detonate in a variety of ways. Spider mines can explode either through command-detonation--where a human operator determines when the mine will explode the mine (also know as a “man in the loop” system)--or through conventional victim-activation, where a victim detonates the weapon by stepping on or picking up the mine. An operator would have the ability to turn the switch one way for command-detonation, and the other way for victim-detonation.

With the flip of a switch, Spider would become a conventional victim-activated antipersonnel mine that cannot tell the difference between the boot of a solider and the foot of a child.

According to the group Human Rights Watch, landmines kill or wound an estimated 26,000 people a year, most of them civilians. The organization also estimates over 100 million mines already buried worldwide.

While equipping Spider with command-detonated capabilities can be seen as making it more discriminate than conventional anti-personnel mines, the inclusion of a victim-activation option is particularly alarming to some members of the Appropriations Committee.

"It's a self-destruct, self-deactivation mine," said Tim Rieser, aide to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a senior member of the Committee. "So it's safer for civilians than a 'dumb' mine. But with this feature it is no less indiscriminate . . . and that is what has been objectionable from the beginning. With the command activation the weapon can't tell the difference between a civilian and a combatant."

Leahy believes the option is contrary to the intent of the program--to develop less-indiscriminate landmines.

The international push

"I ask all nations to join with us and conclude an agreement to reduce the number and availability of those mines," US President Bill Clinton said in 1994, making him the first world leader to call for a ban of anti-personnel mines.

However, instead of joining the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty banning use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of antipersonnel landmines, Clinton instead initiated a program within the Pentagon to identify possible alternatives to the mines. The continued refusal makes the US one of just three Western democracies that have not signed the treaty (Finland and Israel have also refused to sign on).

At issue was the US request for a Korean exception--as landmines are key to US military strategy in South Korea.

Since May 1996, the U.S. has searched for alternatives to antipersonnel landmines that would enable the military to agree to a complete ban on their use.

But when Clinton left office in 2001, experts tell RAW STORY the thrust of the program changed, and some now believe the Spider does not provide a safer alternative.

"The initial intent was good; to have a purely man-in-loop system takes away the indiscriminate aspect of the weapon and that’s what we wanted them to do," said Mark Hizney, Senior Researcher, Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. "But putting this set of software in and reversing it back to the victim-activated function defeats the purpose."

"It’s going to create headaches for the U.S. with the allies who are a party to the treaty banning anti-personnel landmines,” said Hizney.

Production continues

According to budget documents submitted by the administration, the Defense Department had planned to make a decision in December 2005 with regards to Spider production. However, Congress delayed the decision by including a provision in the fiscal year 2006 military appropriations bill, passed on December 31, 2005, that requires the Secretary of the Army to conduct a review of new landmine technologies and report on the possible indiscriminate effects of these new systems before any production decision is made.

RAW STORY's request for comment from officials at the Picatinny Arsenal - an armament research and development center responsible for the production and development of antipersonnel landmine alternatives - were not immediately returned.

The Bush administration has virtually abandoned Clinton’s 1996 call for phase-out, but has continued the research and development program looking for alternatives to conventional landmines.

In 2004, the Bush administration also announced that it would not join the Ottawa Treaty because "its terms would have required us to give up a needed military capability," according to the 2005 Human Rights Watch Report, “Back In Business: U.S. Landmine Production and Exports.” In doing so, the U.S. became the first country to state that it will never join the Mine Ban Treaty.

The Pentagon has spent more than $320 million on researching alternatives to conventional antipersonnel mines since 1997. The Spider mine system alone has already cost U.S. taxpayers $230 million.

But according to Hizney, this goes well beyond taxpayer concerns. He fears that if the U.S. does not commit to the eventual phase out of anti-personnel landmines, other nations may follow suit.

“This is a serious cause for concern because it [rejects the] idea that the weapon is indiscriminate--and is inherently indiscriminate--and should be banned,” said Hizney. “It also provides cover for countries like Burma and Russia, who are using [unsophisticated] landmines. They figure if the U.S. keeps their landmines, no matter how sophisticated they are, they have the right to maintain and use landmines in an indiscriminate way too.”

As of now, the question of new landmine development is only delayed. The issue will come up again once the study is submitted to Congress, likely in the fall of 2006.