The case against the Land-Mine Treaty

(from The Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2010)

Without the DMZ minefield, nuclear weapons would be the main deterrent protecting South Korea.


Sixty-eight senators have sent a letter to President Obama urging U.S. ratification of the Ottawa Convention. The 10-year-old treaty, banning the production and use of land mines, has been accepted by over 150 countries, including most of our allies.

The U.S., however, should not join this august club. Land mines remain a critical part of America’s 21st century security architecture.

The demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea contains massive minefields. They guard against surprise attacks by numerically superior North Korean infantry who are poised 20 miles from the outskirts of Seoul.

Deterring nuclear-armed and consistently erratic North Korea (its most recent provocation was sinking a South Korean warship) is a challenge requiring all the tools in the U.S. military arsenal. Ratifying the Ottawa Convention means dismantling the DMZ minefields. That means an American president might face the unpalatable choice of watching South Korea (and the U.S. forces stationed there) overrun—or using nuclear weapons.

Although the U.S. has chosen not to deploy land mines in post 9/11 wars, they can save the lives of American soldiers. Our bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have regularly come under insurgent attacks, including on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009, when hundreds of Taliban penetrated the defense perimeter of Combat Outpost Keating, an isolated U.S. camp in northeastern Afghanistan. Outnumbered six to one, the G.I.s fought a desperate action with small arms. U.S. aircraft arrived, but only after eight Americans (of 53) were killed. Had the camp been surrounded with a minefield, the results would have been very different.

Outside Korea, land mines on a grand scale may no longer be an essential part of the U.S. arsenal. But ratifying the Ottawa Convention transforms a policy choice into a legal obligation that, notably, neither Russia nor China (or Iran, North Korea and several other rogue states) have accepted. Unilateral disarmament here is neither smart arms control nor good foreign policy.

Land mines do present important humanitarian concerns. Once deployed, they can remain active for decades, and civilians are regularly injured or killed by these weapons long after a conflict has ended. This is a particularly acute problem in the developing world, where many belligerents never bothered to mark or clear the affected areas.

But the newest generation of American “smart” mines can be remotely armed and disarmed, or programmed to blow themselves up after a given time. These weapons are no more or less inhumane than other types of military hardware.

While some smart mines can be expected to malfunction and remain armed, the same is true of all unexploded ordinance, including aircraft-delivered bombs and artillery rounds. Properly used, land mines are not only an effective weapons system, but their limited range can produce far less unintended damage to civilians than, for example, a heavy artillery barrage or aerial bombing.

The treaty, however, would ban all land mines, stupid or smart. In truth, most of its proponents are more interested in reworking the entire legal regime governing warfare than they are in making any particular type of weapon more humane.

Traditionally, the laws of war accommodated military imperatives, imposing only the most basic of restraints. This was in recognition that a more restrictive code would not likely check nations engaged in a life or death struggle. As the realities of war have receded for most developed countries, progressives have worked to transform the norms applicable to armed conflict into something akin to a code governing domestic police functions.

The Ottawa Convention is part and parcel of this process, and the only real justification for U.S. accession to this treaty is a bow to international political correctness. That is what the Senate letter meant by urging the president to reconsider the U.S. position as consistent with his “commitment to reaffirm U.S. leadership in solving global problems.”

That type of symbolism is just not a good enough reason to give up a weapon that can protect American forces and assist them in accomplishing their missions.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey, Washington, D.C.-based attorneys, served in the Department of Justice during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.



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