When the United States opted to not sign the Ottawa Treaty in 1997 it was because of, in the opinion of then-President Bill Clinton, an issue of American safety. Instead, the Americans promised a number of unilateral measures to bring the US into near compliance with the Treaty, including a ban on antipersonnel landmine exports.

The problem with unilateral bans is that they are easily revoked or amended. For example, consider the recent revision to US defence department policies regarding cluster munitions. According to a DOD statement from late late November, the department will allow for the use of cluster munitions with more than a 1% failure rate to be used in combat operations until safer munitions are available in sufficient numbers. Since the only supplier of American cluster munitions which meet this requirement stopped producing them in 2016, it is unclear how sufficient numbers of these safer munitions will ever be obtained.

The Americans remain committed to joining the Ottawa Treaty…eventually. They have promised to avoid the use of anti-personnel landmines everywhere but the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula. Yet this sudden change in U.S. policy regarding cluster munitions shows that unilateral commitments are easily broken, proves once again the importance of multilateral, binding agreements like the Ottawa Treaty.

Cluster munitions are moving back into the potential US arsenal. Antipersonnel landmines could be next.


Image courtesy of The Toronto Star.