The Ottawa Treaty: Trump has to be stopped from removing landmine protections

As published in the Globe & Mail, 7 February 2020. Reproduced with permission of the authors.

It was only a matter of time. President Trump, who has been systematically dismantling any and all forms of arms control or limitations on weaponry, has now decided that the restrictions of former US presidents on the use of personnel land mines should end.

This announcement came in the same tone of gobbledygook that has become a trademark signature of Trumpian perfidy as he continues to take a wrecking ball to US participation in a variety of international agreements that have been painstakingly negotiated to make the world a safer place.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper used the following rationale:

“I think landmines are an important tool that our forces need to have available to them in order to ensure mission success, and in order to reduce risk to forces.”

That specious reasoning was debunked effectively during the debate on the Landmine Treaty negotiations in the 90’s  when the International Committee of the Red Cross, supported by  senior US army commanders such as Lt. General Hollingsworth, former US  commander in Korea, pointed out that the weapons were a huge risk to civilians and soldiers alike. This was reinforced by veterans themselves when the Vietnam Veterans of America, under the leadership of its president Bobby Mueller was a founder of the International campaign to Ban Landmines, reinforcing the case that the military utility of personnel land mines was peripheral but the danger of killing and maiming soldiers and civilians was extremely high. Fifty per cent of victims are children.

The Trump declaration ignores those compelling arguments. There is nothing new about his know-nothing approach to such important experiential evidence or his absence of concern about the risk to people.

A Cambodian Self Help Demining explosive ordnance disposal technician is shown the location of a suspected explosive.

Neither the president nor his acolytes take into account the effectiveness and impact of the Landmine convention of which one hundred and sixty four countries are signatory, the largest membership of any disarmament agreement. Land Mine Monitor estimates the tally of people severely injured or killed from 1997 to the present to be in the range of a 150,000. But after 1999 the levels dropped to under 10,000 annually. Major demining projects are underway in countries where land mines corrupt large swaths of land. Figures for 2019 show that Cambodia where the Canadian Landmine Foundation supports demining and educational efforts still has millions of mines yet to be destroyed.

There is also an upward trend of casualties in places like Mynamar, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Mali, and Ukraine where there is ongoing violent conflict or invasions. This increase in fatalities and injuries caused by land mines is covertly supported by both private and governmental arms dealers. If there was any way to change the land mine agreement it should have been to authorize the levying of sanctions against such actions and to expose the purveyors of deadly land mines.

That is why the decision to lift restrictions is so damaging. It gives license to rogue combatants around the world, to say nothing of major powers like Russia and China who will now feel free to amend their own no-use policies. This is a dog whistle that will be heard by authoritarians around the world.

The United States did not sign the original Ottawa Treaty because of Pentagon pressure. But since then under successive Republican and Democratic administrations, the US adhered to the treaty limits and been a major donor to the cause of eliminating landmines.

Until now.

The Trump administration has turned its back on the risk of land mines just as it has on international efforts on nuclear weapons control, climate change adaptations, and refugee protection.

The Government of Canada needs to speak out and express its strong opposition to this desecration of the Ottawa treaty. We provided leadership in bringing the treaty to fruition – an apt demonstration of how we can and should be a continuing advocate for human security.

Canadians are supportive of their government being a leader in efforts to limit the untrammelled use of extreme nationalist attacks on global agreements and cooperation.

As our Parliament is now debating a revised North American free trade agreement, Parliamentarians should consider that one of the partners to that treaty is using its passage to reinforce his misbegotten mission of malevolence to secure re-election.

Canada must take a stand to defend the integrity of a remarkable and historic treaty that bears the name of our national capital, restore funding for land mine removal and seek to mobilize other governments in a condemnation of  Trump’s attack on land mine security and protection.


Lloyd Axworthy was Foreign Minister in the Chrétien government.

John English is a former parliamentarian, author and was a Special Envoy on landmines.