Antipersonnel landmines that tear bodies apart are a problem now resolved, right? Wrong. Although much progress has been made over the past decades in slowing their production and use, as well as in demining areas where they still represent a threat to farmers, children, refugees and civilians in general, mines still pose life-threatening dangers to tens of thousands in parts of the world marked by past or present warfare. And now the United States, which should be leading the way toward a total ban, is poised to develop a new type of landmine known as the Spider. The United States has not manufactured antipersonnel mines since 1997, nor has it used them since the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. But to our discredit, we are not among the some 150 countries that have signed on to the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. The United States is the only NATO country that has held back. The treaty prohibits not just the production but also the sale and stockpiling of mines. The United States, however, although it abides by a number of the treaty’s provisions, has reserved the right to produce mines. As for stockpiling, the United States has over 10 million antipersonnel mines in reserve, making ours the world’s third largest landmine arsenal after Russia and China.
Depending on how it is used, the Spider, so named for its prongs that suggest spider legs, can be either a human-operated or a victim-activated system. According to Pentagon planning documents, it is designed to have two modes. In its command-detonate mode, a soldier or other human operator decides when to detonate the mine, which might be a mile or more away. When alerted that the system is being touched by presumed enemies, the soldier decides whether or not to detonate the system. Strictly speaking, this mode is not victim-activated, that is, it is not set off by a person who steps on or touches any part of the Spider system. But the Spider also has an override feature that allows the soldier to make the weapon victim-activated. Many would argue that in this mode of operation the weapon violates international humanitarian law.
Developing and producing such a munitions system would represent a step backward in U.S. policy from its stance in the 1990’s, when under the Clinton administration the nation was moving toward the kind of total ban to which the other NATO countries and military allies like Australia and Japan have already committed themselves through the Ottawa treaty. Despite President Bill Clinton’s resolve to bring the United States eventually into the treaty, the Bush administration has rejected that objective and continues to maintain that landmines are a necessary component of military strategy. The administration’s funding of munitions systems like the Spider has already cost taxpayers $130 million. The eventual cost of both development and production is estimated to be $1.3 billion. Late last year, Congress instructed the Pentagon to delay production of the Spider until the completion of a study to determine the indiscriminate effects of the weapon, because it could so easily function in a victim-activated mode.
Scott Stedjan, coordinator of the nonprofit U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines, told America that the study may not be ready for some time. Those against any new production of antipersonnel mines, however, have already been mounting their opposition. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat of Vermont) and Senator Arlen Specter (Republican of Pennsylvania) have introduced the Victim-Activated Landmine Abolition Act of 2006. The bill would forbid the United States from procuring landmines and other victim-activated weapons. The Spider system, when switched from its command-detonated to its victim-activated mode, would be prohibited by this legislation.
Passage of this bill, which has the support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, would be a definite step in the right direction. Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, who is chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Policy, wrote in September to senators who have co-sponsored the bill (S.3768) that, as the historical use of landmines makes clear, these indiscriminate weapons frequently kill and maim innocent civilians, often long after active hostilities have ceased. He adds that passage of the act would strengthen the moral standing of our nation.
At this point in the nation’s history, a strengthening of its moral standing is sorely needed. In the eyes of many American citizens and of the world, much of that standing has already been lost because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our detention policies. Passage of the Leahy-Specter bill would be a good start toward recovering it. And it would be a step toward the real goal, signing on to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty.