Is the Land Mine Treaty Just “International Political Correctness”?

by Julian Ku

I have always thought the Ottawa Convention banning landmines was a nice idea, but somewhat unrealistic. Case in point: the U.S. and South Korea rely on landmines to prevent a North Korean attack on South Korea. It is hard to imagine a cheaper more effective deterrent than landmines, as David Rivkin and Lee Casey argue in today’s WSJ.  As a policy matter, this claim is up for debate. Indeed, 68 U.S. senators have already indicated support for the treaty.

Perhaps more interestingly, Rivkin and Casey classify the Landmine Treaty as a new kind of “international political correctness” aimed at undermining the traditional laws of war.

Traditionally, the laws of war accommodated military imperatives, imposing only the most basic of restraints. This was in recognition that a more restrictive code would not likely check nations engaged in a life or death struggle. As the realities of war have receded for most developed countries, progressives have worked to transform the norms applicable to armed conflict into something akin to a code governing domestic police functions.

The Ottawa Convention is part and parcel of this process, and the only real justification for U.S. accession to this treaty is a bow to international political correctness. That is what the Senate letter meant by urging the president to reconsider the U.S. position as consistent with his “commitment to reaffirm U.S. leadership in solving global problems.”

That type of symbolism is just not a good enough reason to give up a weapon that can protect American forces and assist them in accomplishing their missions.

This is an important theme that scholars are just beginning to pick up on (with the exception of Alan Dershowitz, of course).  Are the laws of war being changed somehow into something really different (and in service of progressive goals)?  Is that a bad thing?

4 Responses

  1. Isn’t that your co-blogger Ken’s main area of blogging interest?

  2. Yes, the laws of war are changing and that is a good thing. Just as in the early part of the 20th century, we are seeing new rules being written to restrict and limit the most inhumane aspect of war. The Landmines Ban and aggression being defined as a crime under the International Criminal Court are just two examples. These steps will be remembered on par with the ban on mustard gas and the Geneva Conventions.

  3. This is interesting on a number of levels.

    I think I understand the specific defense put forth with respect to the use of landmines along the border in Korea.  They’re an inexpensive, defensive weapon, good maps can be made for eventual demining, they’re deployed in a manner so that civilian death and maiming will be minimal, etc..  South Korea and North Korea are unlikely to sign on to a ban that restricts their stockpiling and use any time soon.

    That said, focusing on the exceptional case where a particular weapon may be justified pursuant to the minimal guidelines of customary humanitarian law seems to me to miss several important points.

    First, this is a voluntary treaty.  Why shouldn’t states band together to limit the production, export, stockpiling, and use of weapons?  Why shouldn’t civil society press for this? Saying that it isn’t required by existing international law seems obtuse.  That’s the whole point.

    Second, this effort is in line with certain basic principles of humanitarian law – distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate targets, and proportionality.  The vast majority of landmines don’t do a very good job distinguishing between a civilian foot and an enemy soldier foot.  They cause widespread devastation, maiming and killing tens of thousands of civilians for generations, and making vast areas economically unusable.

    Finally, managing the problem of landmines (and the related problem of unexploded ordinance, particularly from cluster bombs) requires a post-paleolithic approach to national interest.  It is in the interest of the U.S., and almost every other country, to promote the strong international norm against the use of certain weapons, including these.  Yes, an individual country might want to use them, and might believe they will “do it right”, but given the overwhelming transnational problems with these weapons, the costs outweigh the minimal benefits of _not_ building these norms.  The denigration of these important norms as “political correctness” is both a bit silly and revealing – no one claims to be “politically correct”, instead the charge is often lobbed by those who do not want to be bound by norms of civility – particularly when comfortably violating those norms serves to prop up the self-importance of one group over another.

    In the end, I’ll stand with those working to end the maiming and killing caused by these weapons, whether or not it reminds anyone of efforts to make it unacceptable to, for instance, not use ethnic slurs.

  4. The treaty would be unobjectionable were it not for the concept of customary international law.  After all, what’s wrong with nations deciding of their own free will refrain from using a certain weapon?

    The objectionable part is that its real purpose is as a bludgeon to coerce states who see otherwise by insisting that only the viewpoint of the signatories counts, and the weapons should be banned regardless of the views of those who hold otherwise.

    As such, I suggest the United States reject joining the treaty in the strongest terms possible.  The Convention on Cluster Munitions is another such odious beast.

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