The picture is not irredeemably bleak. The Landmine Monitor said that 32 donors, led by the United States, contributed nearly $480 million in 2016 for mine clearance and victim aid. That was an increase of 22 percent from the year before. More than 232,000 antipersonnel mines were reportedly destroyed in 2016, and about 66 square miles — an area nearly the size of Brooklyn — were cleared of explosive hazards.
The grim reality, though, is that the land mine and cluster munitions treaties are undercut by the refusal of some of modern warfare’s most powerful players to sign them. Among those countries are China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia and Saudi Arabia. And the United States. The Pentagon has long insisted that eliminating cluster bombs could put soldiers at risk. As for land mines, they are deemed by Washington to be a useful tool in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea — a first-line defense for the South against a possible invasion. But given the North’s nuclear buildup, a mined DMZ seems to be a Cold War vestige of diminished value.
Washington is not immune to international suasion. Land mines are so stigmatized that American forces have barely used them since the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The United States stockpile, estimated at three million mines, is significantly reduced from pre-treaty years; it’s puny compared with the 26 million mines that Russia has on hand, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Similarly, American reliance on cluster munitions, which peaked in the early stages of the 2003 Iraq war, has all but disappeared.
In 2014 the Obama administration even signaled it might be willing to join the anti-mine treaty. Regrettably, that step never came. It might have been a moral statement encouraging others to follow suit. Now, with President Trump openly disdainful of international agreements, the likelihood of Washington’s signing the treaty would seem to be about zero. The Pentagon, under his ultimate control, recently authorized the military to restock older cluster munitions, whose immediate failure rate can be high, leaving bomblets that can explode and kill civilians even years later.
For countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine and Yemen, the risks may endure long after the guns go silent. Vietnam provides an example. Since the war there ended in 1975, at least 40,000 Vietnamese are believed to have been killed and another 60,000 wounded by American land mines, artillery shells, cluster bombs and other ordnance that failed to detonate back then. They later exploded when handled by scrap-metal scavengers and unsuspecting children.
The lesson is stark for today’s war-torn countries. They could reap the same whirlwind in coming decades.