WASHINGTON — The Obama administration pledged Friday to stop producing or purchasing landmines, but it stopped short of signing an international treaty that requires countries to destroy their stockpiles, saying it was “diligently pursuing solutions” that would allow it to eventually sign the agreement.
The administration made the announcement at a Mine Ban Treaty conference in Mozambique, and the White House said in a statement it will not replace existing stockpiles of the weapons “as they expire.”
Human rights groups that have pressed the administration to sign the landmine ban hailed the decision but criticized the U.S. for not signing the treaty, noting that the announcement does not prevent use of its existing stockpile.
“It makes no sense for the U.S. to acknowledge the weapons should be banned because of the humanitarian harm they cause while retaining the option to use them for years to come,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chairman of the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines, a coalition of more than 400 nongovernmental organizations.
Though the U.S. has not been known to use anti-personnel landmines in combat for more than two decades, the “vague position” may do little to spur other major powers like China and Russia to sign the treaty, said Elizabeth MacNairn, executive director of Handicap International, an international aid organization that works with landmine victims.
“By not setting a firm date to complete this task, the U.S. runs the risk of allowing its landmine policy review to drift beyond President Obama’s term in office as president,” MacNairn said.
The United States in 1994 was the first nation to call for the “eventual elimination” of all anti-personnel landmines, and it had been U.S. policy to give up the use of all landmines and sign the treaty by 2006 if alternatives were in place. Since then 161 countries have signed the treaty.
The Bush administration in 2004 said it would not sign the ban, allowing the indefinite use of the anti-personnel mines.
Obama’s decision comes just months after Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional panel that he believed landmines are “an important tool in the arsenal of the armed forces of the United States.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., cited Dempsey’s remarks on Friday as he accused Obama of making an “end run around Congress” and putting politics ahead of the military.
“His announcement today is perfect for a feel-good press release but bad for the security of our men and women in uniform,” McKeon said.
Treaty opponents have cited tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where landmines lace the DMZ, the heavily guarded demilitarized zone separating North Korea and South Korea. The U.S. has an estimated 9 million self-destruct anti-personnel mines stockpiled for use.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the decision signals the administration’s “clear aspiration” to sign the treaty, and he said it “in no way signals a reduction in our ability to assist in defense of our friends in South Korea.”
The U.S. is now conducting a “modeling and simulation effort” to determine how to mitigate the risks associated with the loss of using landmines, said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has pressed the case for signing the treaty in meetings with Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said that by forcing the Pentagon to find alternative solutions, “the White House once and for all has put the United States on a path to join the treaty.”
“An obvious next step is for the Pentagon to destroy its remaining stockpile of mines, which do not belong in the arsenal of civilized nations,” he said.