SECRETARY OF STATE John Kerry commemorated International Mine Awareness Day on Monday by touting the United States’ contributions to land mine-removal efforts and announcing a new effort to disarm explosives left behind by ISIS in Ramadi.
“Innocent people — including children — remain at risk from land mines in more than 60 countries around the world,” Kerry said in a written statement. “It is way past time for the international community to decrease that risk, to help ensure they can walk in safety. On this day of awareness, we call on other nations to join us in these efforts around the world.”
But the United States continues to stockpile land mines, and, despite an overwhelming international consensus, reserves the right to use them on the Korean Peninsula.
After the Korean War, both North and South Korea heavily mined the demilitarized zone, and hundreds of South Korean villagers have been killed stepping on the mines.
The Pentagon has not used land mines broadly since the first Gulf War in 1991, and stopped producing them in 1997. In 2014, then-Pentagon press secretary Jack Kirby said the U.S. still possessed 3 million anti-personnel mines held in reserve in case North Korea invades South Korea.
Because mines remain active long after a conflict is over, they kill civilians who unknowingly pick them up or step on them.
According to a 2015 report from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, more than 3,500 people were reported killed or injured in 2014 by land mines, though the actual number is likely higher. That represents a decline from a decade ago, when mines killed tens of thousands of civilians every year.
Military experts including Gen. James Hollingsworth, a former commander of U.S. forces in Korea, have questioned the usefulness of land mines against a North Korean invasion. Hollingsworth argued that laying mines would restrict room for South Korean forces to maneuver, and called the mines a “game plan for disaster.” The Pentagon commissioned a study on the use of mines in Korea, but its results are not in.
In 1997, in response to a global, Nobel Prize-winning campaign, the U.N. adopted an international Mine Ban Treaty, which is currently signed by 162 countries. The United States tried to weaken the treaty, unsuccessfully arguing that it should exclude certain types of mines, and that mines should be allowed in Korea. President Clinton refused to sign the treaty, calling it a threat to the “safety and security of our men and women in uniform.” The U.S. has not signed the treaty to this day.
The Obama administration announced in September 2014 that it would abide by the treaty everywhere except the Korean Peninsula, and claimed the U.S. was on a path “ultimately … to accede” to the whole treaty. Secretary Kerry’s statement last year on International Mine Awareness Day reiterated that goal, but his statement on Monday did not. Mary Wareham, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Control Division, called the omission “disappointing.”
Despite its large stockpile, the U.S. has been a leader in international efforts to disarm mines, contributing more than $2.5 billion since 1993 for worldwide removal efforts.
“Throwing money at the problem is not enough,” Wareham said in a statement emailed to The Intercept. “A permanent solution is needed, and the Mine Ban Treaty provides it.”
The movement against land mines has attracted a long list of celebrity endorsements. In 2002, Paul McCartney tried to persuade then-Secretary of State Colin Powell that the U.S. should sign the land mine treaty. Angelina Jolie spent 18 months on the board of Halo Trust, a mine-clearing charity popularized by Princess Diana. Last year, James Bond star Daniel Craig was named the first U.N. global advocate against land mines.
Ratification of the Mine Ban Treaty would require two-thirds of the Senate. In May 2010, 68 senators signed a letter expressing their support for the treaty, and urging President Obama to send it to the Senate for their consideration.
Responding to The Intercept’s request for comment, a State Department spokesperson stressed U.S. leadership in mine-removal efforts, and said, “We remain committed to doing more to reduce the impact of land mines.”
Top photo: A woman carrying a baby walks by a land mine-awareness sign in the village of O’Chhoeu Kram in Cambodia.