U.S. Pledges to Sign APL Ban; Lists Conditions to Be Met First

May 1998

By Erik J. Leklem

In a May 15 letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Clinton administration pledged that the United States would sign the Ottawa landmine convention by 2006 if "suitable alternatives" to anti-personnel landmines (APLs) and so-called mixed anti-vehicle systems can be developed. The treaty, signed last December, bans the stockpiling, development and use of anti-personnel landmines and has been signed by 126 countries as of May 31, but has not been signed by the United States, China, Russia or a number of other landmine possessors.

The letter to Leahy, signed by National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, signals a politically significant shift in the administration's position and increases the pressure on the Department of Defense to develop alternatives to APLs, as called for by President Clinton last year. Moreover, the administration for the first time has pledged to search "aggressively" for alternatives to mixed munitions (which combine anti-vehicle components with anti-personnel munitions) that the United States currently stockpiles and unsuccessfully sought to exempt during the treaty's negotiation. The announcement "is a major step toward the international ban," said Leahy in a May 22 statement. "I am greatly encouraged by this decision because I believe there is no longer any doubt that we will sign…the only question is whether we get there before 2006."

When Clinton announced in September 1997 that the United States would not sign the Ottawa Convention, the president cited the need "to preserve the anti-tank mines we rely upon to slow down an enemy's armored offensive in a battle situation." Clinton also spoke of the need for "an adequate transition period to phase out anti-personnel mines," a prerequisite to signature that remains U.S. policy.

Berger's letter was the result, in part, of a several-month review of landmine policy reportedly codified in a recently completed presidential decision directive, although administration statements since last year have heralded a move toward an eventual U.S. signature of the Ottawa Convention.

The pledge to sign the treaty is related to the administration's ongoing effort to seek a repeal or waiver of a one-year moratorium on the U.S. use of APLs set to begin in February 1999. (See ACT, May/June 1996.) Leahy agreed to support a repeal of the moratorium in exchange for a pledge by the administration to eventually sign the convention. "I agreed to this because the real issue is not whether we stop using landmines for a year, but whether we are committed to signing the treaty," Leahy said in his statement.

In his letter, Berger restated the administration's commitment "to end the use of all APLs outside Korea by 2003, including those that self-destruct," and "to aggressively pursue the objective of having APL alternatives ready for Korea by 2006, including those that self-destruct." Critics contend that the search for alternatives is not proceeding quickly enough. Leahy will reportedly propose an amendment to the 1998 defense authorization bill seeking funding to promote the search for alternatives to self-destruct APLs and mixed munitions.