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America‘s untenable position on the landmine ban treaty

Abul Fadl

The euphoria that surrounded the signing of the global anti-personnel landmine ban treaty in Ottawa last December was tempered by the fact that the world’s most powerful military States and leading producers and users of landmines - the United States, Russia, and China - balked at signing the treaty and sent only observer delegations to the Ottawa conference. In addition, a number of other key countries, including India, Pakistan, and most Middle Eastern States, refused to sign the treaty citing national security considerations.

For its part, the US took refuge in fickle claims of moral superiority and thinly-disguised hubris, insisting that although it did not sign on to the ban, it remains a global leader in combating the mine scourge. Karl Inderfurth, US special envoy to the Ottawa conference, provided another display of the psychological chutzpah characteristic of American foreign policy officials. ‘The president doesn’t need a change of heart, his heart is in the right place. This is something that our government is very committed to,’ a petulant Inderfurth told reporters.

During talks to draft the treaty that took place in Oslo last September, the US pushed for an exemption for the Korean Peninsula, where some 37,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea ostensibly to deter an attack from the communist North. Arguing that some need for landmines remained in the demilitarized zone that separates the North from South, American delegates said that the US will not be able to find alternatives to anti-personnel landmines there before the year 2006. However, everywhere else in the world, alternatives would be found by 2003, they maintained. They also called for a nine-year moratorium on implementation of the treaty.

Another US demand presented in Oslo concerned ‘smart’ people-killing mines, which are programmed to self-destruct days or weeks after they are laid, thus minimizing the risk they pose to non-combatants. These are usually integrated into anti-tank packages. The pentagon estimates that it would take North Korean soldiers about 40 minutes to de-activate the anti-tank mines if they were ringed with anti-personnel mines, but 10 minutes to de-activate non-ringed ones.

The additional half-hour would allow allied forces ample time to unleash devastating air and/or rocket strikes against the advancing troops. Thus banning these packages, the pentagon argued, could result in ‘thousands’ of allied casualties in case of a North Korean attack. In an effort to sidestep ardent opposition to this demand

from other participants, the pentagon resorted to verbal gymnastics, redefining anti-personnel mines mixed with anti-tank packages as ‘submunitions.’

America’s uncompromising position on these demands pre-determined that it will never sign the treaty. Delegates from the 89 countries who met in Oslo to draft the treaty rebuffed Washington’s attempts to water it down with such loopholes. They rightly felt that agreeing to these exceptions would push the treaty down the slippery slope of accommodating exemptions pleaded by other countries. That would inevitably undermine the ban’s effectiveness as it builds into the treaty escape hatches that allow countries to claim action on banning landmines without taking meaningful steps.

Failing to persuade other countries to buy into its position, the US pulled out of negotiations on September 17. Hours later, in a typical Clintonesque about-face, president Bill Clinton, who in a 1994 speech to the United Nations had committed himself to work for the ‘virtual elimination’ of landmines, told reporters that he refuses to become a party to a treaty that would jeopardize ‘the safety and security of our men and women in uniform.’

It is highly doubtful that the signing of the landmine treaty by the US will have a consequential impact on the military balance of power in the Korean Peninsula. Given the comparative military and technological inferiority of North Korea and the kind of lethal firepower that is currently in the hands of the US military, whose commanders often brag of their capacity to bomb any country in the world back to the ‘Stone Age,’ the landmines that carpet the Korean demilitarized zone are expendable.

Furthermore, the complete US control of the air over the Korean theater of operations, including the ‘deep battlefield’ inside North Korea, would afford allied forces the opportunity to delay if not halt a surprise onslaught by the ill-equipped North Koreans without the use of anti-personnel landmines. Besides, existing surveillance technology makes the presumed North Korean ‘surprise’ attack highly inconceivable.

Moreover, since neither North nor South Korea is party to the treaty, the ban on anti-personnel landmines in the Korean Peninsula would apply only to those laid by the US. That would leave intact minefields

deployed by South Korea. Finally, and most significantly, a declaration issued last year by a group of retired US generals including Norman Schwarzkopf, the gruff and blusterous commander of allied forces during the Persian Gulf War, puts the lie to the American position by denying that landmines have any significant battlefield utility.

In an article that he wrote for The Washington Post (December 7, 1997), senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a proponent of the treaty, exposed the absurdity of the Korean argument, saying: ‘The pentagon’s own cautious computer war games show that with or without US anti-personnel mines, North Korea’s large but antiquated force would be channelled by mountainous terrain into devastating killing zones and halted north of Seoul. The pentagon also knows that in the ôclose-inö battle inside South Korea, enemy soldiers who try to sabotage anti-tank mines there would be destroyed by a lethal barrage of other weapons.’

In the light of the untenable nature of Washington’s Korean argument, one is prone to seek an explanation for US recalcitrance on the landmine ban outside the bounds of a purely strategic or tactical analysis. An adequate explanation lies in the influence exerted by the military-industrial complex on the decision-making process in Washington. Another is grounded in such psychological notions as the arrogance of power syndrome, megalomania, paranoia, and egoism.

Leahy characterized the Korean argument as a red herring, indignantly telling Reuters: ‘If the defense of South Korea depends on those mines we might as well just surrender now.’ At a news conference in Ottawa, he pointedly argued that if the US can send a tiny rover vehicle to Mars, it certainly can figure out a way to defend South Korea without deploying landmines.

The senator seems to be a man of relative integrity in an ocean of slime. His admonitions, however, have so far fallen on the deaf ears of US policy-makers who believe that the first rule of politics is the one stating that ‘might is right.’ It is worthwhile to remind him of Lord Acton’s famous aphorism: ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Muslimedia: January 16-31, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 22

Ramadan 17, 14181998-01-16

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