The Obama administration Friday announced measures to reduce and eventually eliminate its stockpile of antipersonnel land mines, with the aim of joining the global treaty that prohibits them.
The announcement, made by a US observer delegation to a conference in Mozambique on the progress of the 15-year-old treaty, was stronger than the previously stated administration position — that it was studying the treaty’s provisions. It appeared to put the United States on a trajectory to signing the treaty.
The administration did not indicate when the United States would sign the treaty, known as the Ottawa Convention, which the Clinton administration had originally encouraged and which most nations have signed.
The US delegation said in a statement read out by the US ambassador to Mozambique, Douglas M. Griffiths, that the United States would no longer produce or acquire antipersonnel land mines, or replace old ones that expire.
The United States has not disclosed precise details about the size of its stockpile. Arms control experts have estimated it to be 10 million to 13 million.
The statement by the delegation, which is led by Steven R. Costner, the deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, also said the United States was “diligently pursuing solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention.”
Human rights groups and disarmament advocates who have increasingly criticized the United States for its reluctance to sign the treaty cautiously welcomed the announcement, although they had been pressing for more.
“We are very pleased with the US announcement that it intends to accede to the mine ban treaty, and that it has instituted a new policy banning future production of antipersonnel mines,” Stephen Goose, the director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, who was attending the treaty conference in Maputo, the Mozambique capital, said in a statement.
But Goose, who helped found the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a group that won a Nobel Peace Prize for its work and is considered largely responsible for the Ottawa Convention, was also critical of the new US position, a view shared by many other disarmament advocates.
“It makes little sense to acknowledge that the weapons must be banned due to the humanitarian harm they cause, and yet insist on being able to use them,” he said. “The US should set a target date for joining the mine ban treaty, should commit to no use of antipersonnel mines until it accedes, and should begin destruction of its stocks.”
Physicians for Human Rights, another founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, also issued a qualified endorsement of the US statement.
“The US government’s announcement that it will stop producing land mines is a step in the right direction, but we remain concerned about anything less than a full commitment to sign the mine ban treaty as soon as possible,” said Widney Brown, the group’s director of programs. “The US government has been missing a key opportunity to lead on a groundbreaking agreement that has achieved great success in preventing deaths of innocent victims, including many children.”
In an indication that the United States is researching ways to replicate the strategic value of antipersonnel land mines without their collateral damage, Griffiths said in the statement that the US policy included experimental work “to ascertain how to mitigate the risks associated with the loss of antipersonnel land mines.”
US defense officials have argued that these weapons have an important purpose — in deterring ground invasions, for example — and that the United States would put itself at a disadvantage by renouncing them. Other powerful nations and potential US adversaries — notably Russia, China, and Iran — have not signed the treaty.
Disarmament advocates have argued that the US’s reluctance to sign might be dissuading the other recalcitrant nations from joining.
The treaty, which first took effect in 1999, is regarded as a triumph of the disarmament movement and has sharply reduced the use and destructive effects of antipersonnel land mines.
These weapons, once common but now almost universally regarded as insidious and indiscriminate, are designed to detonate when unsuspecting victims step on or near them. They can lie dormant for decades in old war zones. Despite the growth in the number of signers to more than 160 countries, thousands of people, roughly half of them children, are killed or maimed annually by residual land mines.
Although it has not joined the treaty, the United States remains the largest single donor to the cause of land mine decontamination and medical care for victims, providing more than $2.3 billion since 1993 for conventional weapons destruction programs in other countries.
It has also taken steps to purge from its stockpile the so-called dumb mines that cannot be disarmed.