This Saturday, the United Nations-proclaimed International Day for Mine Awareness, the world will reaffirm its commitment to eliminate the odious threat that mines and unexploded ordnance pose to civilians in 59 countries around the world. The day will find the United States at a crossroads in its commitment to this goal. Presidential candidates have spent little time discussing national security policy, and particularly how they plan to address the global scourge of explosive remnants of war, amid the spread of COVID-19 and other evolving crises. However, they face critical choices about U.S. leadership that will determine the future of 60 million global citizens impacted by mines. Candidates should embrace these choices as an opportunity to recommit the United States to its role as a global leader in the campaign to eradicate mine contamination by 2025.

Landmines’ Pervasive and Persistent Threat

In 2018, according to the annual Landmine Monitor, nearly 7,000 people globally were killed or injured by landmines, over half of which were children. But the harms of unexploded ordnance are far more expansive than that statistic represents.

Though insufficient data prevents an estimate of the total area contaminated by landmines and unexploded ordnance globally, the number is unquestionably thousands of square miles. At least 11 countries are deemed to have “massive contamination” – that is, contaminated territory totaling more than 100 km2. In these contaminated areas, civilians cannot live, farm, work, or otherwise inhabit – displacing previous residents and hindering economic development. Thousands of square miles of potentially rich farmland are rendered inaccessible, undermining food security and livelihoods. Moreover, because the exact location of landmines is not always known, great masses of land are inaccessible despite likely being landmine-free. For example, the Ethiopian government has declared a total of 1,056 square kilometers contaminated, but reports that it expects only about two percent of this area to actually contain mines.

Angola – one of the world’s most heavily mined nations – also illustrates this dilemma. Despite having an “abundance of fertile soils, biodiversity, vast water resources, aquatic biological and natural resources all over the country,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Angola imports an estimated 80 percent of its food, and food insecurity is acute for many of its citizens. Mine contamination is a key contributor to its agricultural underproduction. The Angolan government has reported that roughly 1,000 mine-contaminated areas remain in the country. Of these, over half (571) cause agricultural blockages, 118 cause road blockages, 105 create infrastructure blockages, and 88 disrupt water access. These blockages undermine agricultural expansion, rural market development, and food security, with a particular impact on small, local farmers.

Landmines also plague millions of refugees and internally displaced people around the world. While escalating combat often drives them away from their homes, it is landmines that often keeps them away, or threatens them upon their return.

For example, thousands of residents left Raqqa, Syria following its seizure by ISIS. Though ISIS was pushed out of the city in November, it left an unprecedented crisis; as Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. assistant secretary and regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, put it, “The number of unexploded ordnance in Raqqa is something that we have never seen before. Extreme. Every house, every room, every inch of the city.” Staggeringly, 50 to 70 returning civilians are wounded or killed by landmines each week.

Landmine contamination disrupts economies, exacerbates food insecurity, displaces communities, and challenges access to transportation, water, and other infrastructure. For 60 million people around the world, mines impose on nearly every aspect of life, presenting a constant risk.

Landmine-Free by 2025?

For the last two decades, the international community has undertaken a coordinated campaign to eliminate mine contamination and assist those impacted by mines around the world.

In October 1996, the Ottawa International Strategy Conference produced agreement on a declaration supporting a total ban on anti-personnel mines, laying the groundwork for what would become the so-called Ottawa Convention: The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. One hundred and twenty-one nations returned to Ottawa in December 1997 to sign the convention. Fast forward to 2020, and 164 nations are party to the Treaty (as with many international agreements, the United States joins several other major producers of mines – like Russia, China, India, and Pakistan – among the 34 non-signatories globally).

The Ottawa Convention commits its parties not to use, develop, produce, require, stockpile, or transfer anti-personnel mines. Further, it commits signatories to destroy existing stockpiles and to eliminate all mines in its territory, including those buried underground, within 10 years of ratification. This last goal has proven exceedingly difficult, due to the fact that many countries where significant minefields are present lack sufficient resources to fund removal, minefields are often located in challenging terrain, and new ordnance – primarily improvised explosive devices – has been widespread in current conflicts such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

These challenges notwithstanding, substantial progress has been made, and the international community has invested significant assistance to enable low-income countries to eliminate mines. To date, 31 parties to the Treaty previously contaminated with mines have been declared mine-free, over 52 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed, and thousands of square miles of territory have been cleared. And in June 2014, over 1,000 state and non-governmental representatives of the international community gathered in Maputo, Mozambique, and set, through the “Maputo+15 Declaration,” a target of a landmine-free world by 2025.

Since 2014, additional challenges have arisen that have called this goal into question. Mines and improvised explosive devices have proliferated in conflict zones like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while the government of Myanmar has continued to actively deploy landmines in operations against separatists. Mine casualties have risen significantly. Some states’ efforts to comply with treaty obligations have stalled; for example, Greece and Ukraine remain out of compliance with obligations to eliminate their mine stockpiles a decade after their treaty-imposed deadlines. And aspirations have run into hard fiscal realities, as the amount of international assistance needed to fund mine removal at a sufficient rate hasn’t materialized. Yet, optimism remains.

Last fall, in Oslo, Norway, the international community gathered for the Fourth Review Conference on a Mine Free World. Treaty parties reaffirmed their commitment to achieving full treaty compliance “to the fullest extent possible” by 2025, and agreed on a 50-point Oslo Action Plan outlining a roadmap for achieving the goal. The Action Plan committed parties to take specific, concrete actions, with deadlines: for example, parties with mine contamination must complete surveys and baselines of all contaminated areas by 2021, and this year must publish national workplans that lay out mine clearance targets needed to achieve elimination by 2025. Most notably, the Action Plan committed donors to increase their assistance in support of these goals, and several nations have announced new funding commitments in the wake of the Review Conference.

Thus, five years out from the 2025 target, there is renewed momentum behind the international campaign to eliminate mines. Sustaining this momentum throughout that period, particularly with regard to international aid commitments, will be essential to success. And no country’s leadership is more needed than that of the United States, the world’s largest funder of humanitarian demining and victim assistance.

U.S. Policy at a Crossroads

The United States is not a party to the Ottawa Convention, but its leadership has underpinned the Convention from the beginning. In 1994, President Bill Clinton called upon the U.N. General Assembly to initiate work on a global treaty to reduce landmines – a speech that ignited negotiations for what eventually became the Ottawa Convention. The U.S. was a key player in these negotiations, but ultimately withdrew when it failed to win concessions to account for its use of landmines in the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, Clinton committed substantial resources to support mine removal and related activities in support of the Treaty’s implementation, and that commitment has persisted through Republican and Democratic administrations for over two decades. Since 1993, the U.S. has funded over $3.4 billion in conventional weapons destruction, a large percentage of which has been dedicated to mine removal.

In addition to funding international demining efforts, the U.S. has been moving steadily toward complying with the Treaty itself. In 2014, after an extensive interagency review, the Obama administration announced that it would align its policies regarding anti-personnel mines to the Ottawa Convention everywhere except on the Korean Peninsula. This announcement meant that, not only would the U.S. forswear the use of mines outside the Korean Peninsula, but also that it would undertake the elimination of all stockpiled mines not needed to defend that region and prohibit the production and sale of anti-personnel mines.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump announced the reversal of this policy, authorizing “combatant commanders, in exceptional circumstances, to employ advanced, non-persistent landmines specifically designed to reduce unintended harm to civilians and partner forces.” In addition to reauthorizing the use of mines in certain circumstances, his decision also allows for their production and potentially their export.

This decision raises critical questions about the direction of U.S. leadership in this arena and, as the U.S. plunges into election season, places the nation’s mine policies and leadership at a crossroads. Presidential candidates – both the incumbent and his challenger – have choices to make that will have a significant impact on the sixty million global citizens living in or near mine-contaminated areas. These choices are captured in three main questions, and candidates should make clear where they stand on each.

Is the Trump administration’s decision to authorize the use and production of certain anti-personnel mines necessary and prudent?

The most immediate question before presidential candidates in this arena is whether Trump’s recent announcement is the best long-term course for U.S. policy. There is no question that the decision undermines U.S. leadership – the decision has already been condemned by the European Union, dozens of non-governmental organizations, and numerous other stakeholders. The question is whether this disadvantage is offset by tangible gains.

The administration’s decision followed a two-year review led by the Department of Defense, which concluded that “restrictions imposed on American forces by the Obama Administration’s policy could place them at a severe disadvantage during a conflict against our adversaries.” It has not provided much information to the public about what circumstances might put U.S. forces at such disadvantage, but comments by Pentagon officials have made clear that the decision is intended to support “great power competition,” that is, potential contingencies with Russia and China.

As a panel of experts discussed in a recent WOTR podcast, there may be hypothetical combat scenarios in which the new mines authorized by Trump are useful: slowing a cross-border assault, for example. As David Johnson, one of the experts in the podcast, wrote in 2018, “Many artillery, air defense, and tank and mechanized infantry units” – capabilities particularly associated with potential contingencies involving Russian incursions into eastern Europe – “rely on rapid displacement and high levels of mobility to survive, thus, requiring not only munitions with area effects, but mines to impede their movement.”

Indeed, this scenario seems to be animating the administration’s landmine policy reversal more than anything else. Sustained ground combat in which U.S. forces are required to deny adversaries access to defended territory or impede ground movement across wide swaths of land seem unlikely in relation to potential contingencies involving China or Iran, or operations against non-state actors like ISIS. Indeed, a RAND-conducted war game Johnson cites found that, in a scenario involving a Russian invasion of Baltic nations, Russia would overtake the Baltic capitals in 60 hours or less, with minimal resistance – a frightening prospect for U.S. commanders who will be asked to defend and retake this territory in support of the NATO alliance.

Here’s the problem: It is almost inconceivable that the U.S. would enter into such a contingency in eastern Europe unilaterally. Instead, it would almost certainly operate in a coalition with fellow NATO members, all of whom are prevented from using, storing, or transferring mines because of their status as parties to the Ottawa Convention. In other words, a decision to use anti-personnel mines in eastern Europe would sever the interoperability of the NATO alliance. Moreover, the U.S. would not be able to either deploy or preposition such mines in advance of the conflict – meaning that, like everything else the U.S. would need to move to the battlefield from outside of Europe in the RAND scenario – they would arrive at the front too late to matter.

There are other operational considerations that make mine use impractical. As discussed in the aforementioned podcast, minefields impede enemy freedom of movement, but do the same for friendly forces, making it difficult to recapture territory and move forces agilely around the battlefield. A 2002 Government Accountability Office report examining the last U.S. use of anti-personnel mines (in the 1991 Gulf War) confirmed that U.S. military commanders feared mines would limit their mobility; they also expressed concerns that widespread mine use would increase fratricide risks.

Taken together, these concerns make the circumstances in which the U.S. might actually find itself at a legitimate disadvantage in a contingency, where anti-personnel mines represent an effective way to address that disadvantage without creating additional battlefield obstacles, and where U.S. forces would be able to avoid insurmountable coalition interoperability or legal concerns appear to be extraordinarily narrow.

The question, then, remains: Do these extraordinarily narrow – potentially even inconceivable – circumstances merit taking on the drags on U.S. global leadership that the policy reversal brings about? For Trump, the election offers an opportunity to reevaluate whether the policy decision makes sense after hearing perspectives of a broadening set of stakeholders. For the Democratic challenger, the question should be not only whether overturning the policy makes sense but, also, if it does, how to build broader support among military leaders whose buy-in will be vital in sustaining such a decision over the long-term.

How can the United States best support the 2025 target for a landmine-free world?

As the world’s largest funder of demining and related activities, the United States’ leadership to eliminate mine-contaminated territory globally will be paramount. Clearly, first and foremost, the essential task for U.S. leaders is to sustain current funding levels for such activities. Additional resources would obviously help but, given the robust U.S. commitment, it may make more sense to look to other nations to increase their assistance first.

More can be done, however, than just standing pat. First, despite its size, the U.S. assistance portfolio is imbalanced. Resources have been primarily focused on addressing the legacy of U.S. military operations: conventional weapons destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan accounts for more funding than the next eight largest recipients combined, while remaining resources have favored southeast Asian nations mined during the Vietnam War. These nations remain among the most heavily contaminated territories in the world; yet, a more balanced portfolio could ensure resources are available to support demining efforts in areas where progress can be made most rapidly.

A more pressing question for presidential candidates is how to best leverage U.S. diplomatic tools to spur commitments from other nations. U.S. leadership has contributed to developing robust action plans at the Maputo and Oslo Review Conferences, and its robust assistance sets an example for other donors. Can more direct diplomatic engagement with key donors elicit more robust commitments? How can the U.S. better leverage bilateral engagements with key partners to press them to undertake meaningful steps toward treaty compliance, such as persuading Ukraine to eliminate its stockpiles or better-resourced nations like Croatia and Chile to dedicate additional national resources for removal? Finally, U.S. leadership could be useful in addressing global stockpiles: how might presidential candidates contemplate building stockpile reductions into arms control and related negotiations, particularly given that one country – Russia – possesses more than half of the estimated remaining stockpiles? This last question need not be complicated by the United States’ own stockpiles: working toward global mine reduction does not require a position on their ultimate elimination.

Should the United States remain outside the Ottawa Convention?

Over the longer term, presidential candidates should consider whether there is a path toward U.S. accession to the Ottawa Convention. Some in the demining community consider the question relatively unimportant: What’s important, they argue, is that the U.S. remain committed to funding mine removal and related activities at a high level. Their fear is that a momentous decision to sign and ratify the convention could lead to decreased emphasis on U.S. leadership in other areas, including assistance.

On the other hand, a presidential decision to sign the Convention would alter global politics around landmines in important ways. Though benefits of signaling in this respect are often overstated, signing the Treaty would powerfully enhance the momentum of the landmine-free campaign as it enters the crucial stretch leading up to 2025. More importantly, it would begin to escalate pressure on other non-signatories, particularly the other major producers of landmines: Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. The United States’ absence from the convention provides easy cover for these nations to continue production and stockpiling of millions of landmines, and for the government of Myanmar and other actors to continue their active use in combat. These outcomes increase risk to U.S. personnel as well as to civilians in mine-contaminated regions.

Signing the Treaty is one thing; ratification quite another. In addition to convincing military leaders that such a decision would not negatively impact their battlefield advantages, it would require building bipartisan support in Congress despite reflexive Republican opposition to treaties and dealing with thorny questions such as the role of mines in defending the Korean Peninsula. There is a pathway to overcoming these challenges, but that pathway requires significant investments of time, effort, and political capital.


In fact, there are clear pathways toward addressing concerns accompanying all three questions above: re-establishing U.S. policy prohibiting anti-personnel mine use, maximizing U.S. support for attaining global landmine-free objectives by 2025, and working toward Ottawa accession. Focused political attention and coalition-building are required in all cases – a tough demand for a president who will face challenges upon inauguration next year that are unprecedented and growing.

Still, the complex security environment in which we live rarely offers us opportunities to achieve complete, lasting solutions to broadly impactful problems, and this is one. If the international community can assemble the right leadership and resources over the next five years, the global plague of anti-personnel mines can be eliminated from the planet, freeing 60 million people from daily risk and unlocking economic growth. That will not happen without the U.S. in front. Presidential candidates face high-stakes decisions about whether and how they will lead the world toward 2025. The clock is ticking.

Image: A sign indicates the presence of landmines on April 5, 2019 in Opytne, Ukraine. Photo by Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/Getty Images