Anti-Vehicle Mines Proposal Falters

Wade Boese

The future of a four-year-old initiative sponsored by the United States and 30 other states to restrict the use of anti-vehicle mines is uncertain due to stiff opposition from some countries, most notably Russia and China.

More than 60 states-parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) gathered in Geneva Nov. 14-25 to discuss the proposal. The CCW aims to prevent civilian casualties and protect soldiers from inhumane wounds by regulating the use of specific types of weapons, such as mines, incendiary weapons, and blinding lasers.

Washington and its supporters hoped the meeting would back negotiations on a new CCW protocol requiring that all anti-vehicle mines used outside of clearly marked perimeter areas be detectable and equipped with self-destruct and self-deactivation devices. The proposal also would bar transfers of undetectable anti-vehicle mines and remotely delivered anti-vehicle mines that lack self-destruct and self-deactivation features. Remotely delivered mines are designed to be emplaced by artillery or aircraft.

But several countries, led by China and Russia, argued that there were still too many unsettled issues to launch negotiations on a final agreement. Because the CCW generally operates by consensus, the minority view prevailed. States-parties have the option of forcing a vote, but the practice is discouraged.

U.S. officials, which had said 2005 was the pivotal year for the proposal, blasted the outcome and cast doubt on whether Washington would continue to participate in future talks. Speaking for the U.S. delegation, Jeffrey Kovar declared Nov. 25 that “the United States is not interested in continuous study” and that “business as usual” was a “failure.” He concluded, “Nevertheless, we will not block the CCW from continuing on this issue.”

What this means for the U.S. role at the talks when they resume in March 2006 remains unclear. Meetings are also scheduled for June and August, and a broader CCW review conference is set for November.

Department of State officials interviewed Dec. 16 by Arms Control Today said that the U.S. government is still evaluating its options. One of the officials complained, “It is not credible to say there is a problem but then do perpetual negotiations.”

The U.S. position is causing some nervousness among supporters of an anti-vehicle mines protocol because Washington has been the proposal’s primary promoter. The United States and Denmark initiated the effort in 2001.

Finnish Ambassador Markku Reimaa, who is serving as the coordinator of the anti-vehicle mine talks, urged countries to press on. “It is my firm conviction that, as a result of this work, a commonly acceptable instrument on [anti-vehicle mines] should be concluded by the time of the review conference,” Reimaa said Nov. 25.

But Russia and China stand in the way. Although other countries, such as Brazil and Pakistan, have expressed concerns about the proposal, the State Department officials said they did not think that other capitals would block an agreement if Beijing and Moscow were onboard.

Russia appears to be the larger obstacle. Moscow questions the basic premise that anti-vehicle mines pose humanitarian risks or threaten civilians, while Beijing argues that making anti-vehicle mines detectable or equipping them with self-destruct or self-deactivation mechanisms is too technically challenging and expensive.

It is difficult to know how many civilian casualties are caused by anti-vehicle mines. But the proposal’s supporters argue that anti-vehicle mines impede or deter humanitarian convoys, demining activities, and the return of refugees or internally displaced people to areas where the mines are believed to have been placed.

Sponsors of the proposal have made some compromises to try and make it more palatable. For instance, instead of completely banning undetectable anti-vehicle mines, the proposal has been revised to permit their use as long as they are employed within a perimeter-marked area.

Still, China and Russia maintain it is “premature” to finalize an agreement. Chinese Ambassador Hu Xiaodi said Nov. 24 that a “wide divergence on many basic elements of the issue of [anti-vehicle mines] exists.” Anatoly Antonov, head of the Russian delegation, remarked the same day that “[w]e are merely on the threshold of understanding the implications of the potential arrangements.”

Kovar disputed the contention that views are too far apart, saying, “Quite frankly, on issues of substance, we do not believe this to be the case.” One of the State Department officials said the issue simply comes down to “political will.”

Despite their differences on anti-vehicle mines, Beijing, Moscow, and Washington are in alignment on another CCW matter. All three capitals say they are moving toward ratifying a November 2003 agreement on post-conflict cleanup of abandoned or unexploded munitions, collectively referred to as explosive remnants of war (ERW). (See ACT, January/February 2004.) A draft U.S. ratification package is currently circulating among government agencies before its submission to the Senate for lawmaker review, one of the State Department officials reported.

Although Washington is taking steps to ratify the ERW protocol, as well as a 2001 amendment that would make the CCW and its protocols apply to intrastate conflicts instead of just interstate fighting, the Bush administration appears less interested in two other CCW protocols. In 1997 the Clinton administration submitted for Senate advice and consent protocols restricting the use of incendiary weapons and blinding lasers, but lawmakers have not completed a review of them. The Bush administration has not pushed the Senate to act.