Landmines are responsible for 15,000 to 20,000 deaths every year around the globe, the vast majority of them (80 percent) civilians, according to the United Nations. Many more people are injured by the explosives, which are scattered throughout conflict zones in 78 countries. Back in late 1997, a bunch of countries agreed that they should try and put a stop to these preventable horrors, so they signed a treaty in Ottawa, Canada, vowing not to use, stockpile or trade in anti-personnel mines. But the United States conspicuously resisted signing the treaty, despite holding a general position against landmine usage and plowing tons of money into their removal. That changed today: the US government officially announced it will stop stockpiling mines and move to join the Ottawa treaty in the coming years. The total US stockpile currently contains 3 million mines, according to The Associated Press.
What changed? The US has actually been steadily moving away from landmines in recent years. For years, the US government maintained that it needed stockpiles of landmines at various military bases around the globe to "ensure the safety of our men and women in uniform and the success of their mission." Then under President Bush, the government said that it would destroy all of its landmines except for those at US military bases in South Korea, which it said it needed to keep around in the event North Korea invaded. As the State Department under President Bush explained:
Landmines enable a commander to shape the battlefield to his advantage. They deny the enemy freedom to maneuver; enhance effectiveness of other weapons (such as artillery or combat aircraft); allow us to fight with fewer forces against a larger enemy force; and protect our forces, saving the lives of our men and women in uniform. No other weapon exists that provides all the capabilities provided by landmines.
The Bush Administration further defended this position by saying it would only stockpile landmines that self-destructed 15 days after deployment. Still, advocates were unimpressed, pointing out civilians be killed or maimed by such mines. When President Obama took office in 2009, many anti-landmine advocates had high hopes that he would end America's landmines supply, but he mostly continued the policies of previous administrations. Today's decision marks the American government's biggest step to eliminate new landmine production once and for all, even if it doesn't put a firm timetable for when the US will sign the Ottawa Treaty.