The Bush administration Friday announced a new landmine policy that includes an end to the use of low-tech conventional mines by the U.S. military by 2010 and a big increase in spending on humanitarian mine clearing. But the United States will remain outside the 1997 Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel mines, and the policy is drawing criticism from anti-mine activists.
The new policy, announced after a lengthy review, seeks to strike a balance between the desire of the U.S. armed forces to retain some landmine capability, especially on the Korean peninsula, and humanitarian concerns about civilian casualties from low-tech mines that can remain buried and lethal for decades.
Under its terms, the U.S. armed forces will be barred from using conventional mines - those without advanced self-destruct mechanisms - by 2010.
But there will be no phase-out of the use of the so-called "smart" landmines, those with timing devices to automatically defuse the explosives within a matter of hours or days.
In addition, the United States will increase spending on humanitarian mine clearing projects around the world by 50 percent for the 2005 fiscal year to $70 million annually.
The policy in effect endorses the Clinton administration's decision not to join the 1997 Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. But it is more restrictive than the past administration's policy in at least one aspect, in that the United States will foreswear the use of conventional anti-vehicle mines after 2010.
On the other hand, it scraps the goal of the Clinton White House to have the United States become a signatory of the Ottawa treaty by 2006.
At a news briefing, the State Department's point-man for landmine policy, Assistant Secretary of State Lincoln Bloomfield, defended the decision to permit the open-ended use of the "smart mines" with self-destruct mechanisms.
He said they have "some continuing utility" for U.S. forces around the world and have an apparently perfect safety record with regard to civilian casualties.
"The fact of the matter is that the safety devices on these landmines, the self-destruct and self-deactive features, have been tested 60,000 times with no failure. So, it's a perfect testing record," said Mr. Bloomfield. "As the special representative on this issue, who has been doing this now for three years and has had an interest beforehand, I have yet to encounter a single case where a self-destruct, self-deactivate landmine in the hands of the United States armed forces has ever been tied to a civilian, innocent civilian casualty in the world."
Mr. Bloomfield stressed that the United States is by far the largest provider of mine clearing aid to countries around the world, having allocated nearly $800 million to 46 countries since 1993 to clear old minefields and assist mine victims.
He said the program is having some success and that world-wide civilian casualties from mine detonations have declined from more than 25,000 a year a decade ago to about 10,000 a year now.
The new policy has drawn at best a mixed reaction from anti-mine advocates.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, a leading opponent of mines in Congress, said there were some positive aspects to the Bush administration's decision but that overall, it is a "deeply disappointing step backward."
An arms control spokesman for Human Rights Watch, Stephen Goose, praised the plan to increase U.S. spending on mine clearing, but said the United States is isolated in its insistence on the continued use of some mines by the armed forces.
The advocacy group Landmine Action said the policy is a step backward that will undermine the Ottawa treaty.