New York Times Gets the Facts Wrong on Land Mines

COMMENTARY Global Politics

New York Times Gets the Facts Wrong on Land Mines

Jan 11th, 2018 8 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations

Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.
The New York Times editorial board reported 8,605 known casualties from land mines in 2016, when the actual number was 1,765. iStock

Every year, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) publishes a report on the number of casualties caused by land mines—or so it says.

And every year, gullible journalists take the report’s headline figure at face value.

But this year, the worst offender is a particularly prestigious outlet: The New York Times, whose Editorial Board authored a column titled, “Why Do Land Mines Still Kill So Many?”

The Gray Lady writes:

The world is rolling backward, and at a disturbingly faster pace, in the struggle to limit carnage from land mines and other booby-trap explosives. The most recent numbers, covering 2016, are appalling. Known casualties that year came to 8,605, including 2,089 deaths… .

According to the Times, 8,605 people were injured or killed in 2016 by land mines and “other booby-trap explosives.”

Well, 8,605 is the ICBL’s headline figure, no doubt about that. But were all those people actually injured or killed by land mines?

Absolutely not.

If you turn to page 57 of the ICBL’s report, you’ll find that only 732 people were injured or killed by an anti-personnel land mine, another 495 by an anti-vehicle mine, and another 538 by an “unspecified” mine.

That’s 1,765 people, not 8,605.

The Times says that casualties to land mines are rising. But the ICBL’s report says that in 2015, 2,002 people were injured or killed by these kinds of mines. So casualties are actually down by 237, not up.

You’d think this would be a cause for modest celebration—but no, apparently it’s not.

True, measuring casualty trends by using the latest ICBL press release is a fool’s errand, because its own reported numbers fluctuate. A lot.

Last year, the ICBL asserted that 2015 saw 6,461 casualties. Now, it says that 2015 had 6,967 casualties.

I don’t object to updating these figures over time as better information becomes available, but comparing this year’s casualties to last year’s based on the latest ICBL report is not going to produce reliable calculations.

The Times’ Obsession With Cluster Bombs

The Times goes on to claim that “[o]ne subset of the menace, cluster munitions, is singularly vicious. … All too often, they fail to detonate right away and thus become time bombs…. Cluster munitions alone caused 971 known casualties in 2016.”

Clearly, the Times asserts that dud cluster bombs are responsible for those casualties.

But the ICBL’s report contradicts this claim, saying that the number of people killed and injured by dud cluster munitions was 114—not 971. The 971 figure includes the people who were directly and immediately killed by cluster munitions that exploded on impact, mostly dropped by the Syrian Air Force. That’s completely different from dud munitions.

The Times’ fixation on cluster munitions is puzzling to me. I don’t see how being killed by a cluster bomb is any worse than being killed by a 500-lb bomb. In fact, the bigger bomb would probably cause more damage, and casualties, than the smaller ones.

Let’s go back to those 8,605 casualties. Where does the Times get that number from?

Well, what the ICBL has done is the same thing they do every year: combine all land mine casualties together with all casualties from improvised explosive devices and all explosive leftovers (known as “explosive remnants of war”).

And then, journalists come along and report that all those casualties were caused by land mines.

Don’t believe me? Well, it happened in 2014. And in 2015. And in 2016.

Now, it’s true that some improvised explosive devices do qualify, legally, as land mines. But that’s not what caused the big jump in 2016 casualties, when casualties from improvised explosive devices increased by only 257.

The casualty increase came almost entirely from the “Unknown mine/explosive remnants of war item” category, which leapt from 1,410 in 2015 to 3,843 in 2016.

We can’t say whether these casualties were caused by land mines and, in fact, it’s likely that most of them were caused by dud bombs, not land mines at all, as almost all these casualties came in Yemen and Libya. Both of those countries saw heavy fighting in 2016.

The Times then moans that “perhaps the saddest part of all this is that for well over a decade the world seemed to have gotten a grip on what are referred to generically as the ‘explosive remnants of war,’” for which it thanks a 1999 treaty banning victim-activated anti-personnel land mines.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. That 1999 treaty isn’t about explosive remnants of war. It’s about anti-personnel land mines only. If casualties from explosive remnants of war are going up (and they seem to be), it’s got nothing to do with the treaty.

There is, however, an explosive remnants of war protocol, adopted in 2003. Too bad the anti-land mine activists hate the process that produced it. Why do they hate it? Because they don’t want agreements that control weapons. They just want to ban them.

Of course, the Times doesn’t know that context. It also doesn’t seem to know the context on funding for land mine clearance—even though they reported on it in 2016.

Back then, the Times cheered, “32 donors, led by the United States, contributed nearly $480 million … for mine clearance and victim aid. That was an increase of 22 percent from the year before.”

But the year before, funding dropped by 14 percent. So actually, funding—after a three-year drop that began in 2013—is now almost exactly where it was back in 2010. U.S. funding did fall slightly, but most of the decline came from Japan, the European Union, and especially Norway.

Now most of those donors have restored or increased their funding. There’s not much of a story here.

Treaties Will Solve Everything, Right?

So what does the Times propose we do about these supposed 8,605 casualties? Well, sign more treaties, of course.

Says the Times:

[T]he land mine and cluster munitions treaties are undercut by the refusal of some of modern warfare’s most powerful players to sign them. … Washington is not immune to moral suasion… . [Signing would be] a moral statement encouraging others to follow suit.

Are you seriously telling me you believe that, if the U.S. got rid of its land mines, ISIS would stop using improvised explosive devices and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would stop bombing his own population?

You have to be very stupid to believe that. But apparently, the New York Times Editorial Board does believe it.

It gets better. Why hasn’t the U.S. gotten rid of its land mines? Because South Korea uses mines to defend itself against North Korea, and South Korea is an ally of ours.

But according to the Times, “given the North’s nuclear buildup, a mined DMZ seems to be a Cold War vestige of diminished value.”

So because North Korea has nuclear weapons, we should abandon our land mines? I’m glad the Times wasn’t advising NATO on how to defend Western Europe during the Cold War.

One of the successes of 2017, according to the land mine ban advocates, was that Sri Lanka joined the 1999 treaty in December. According to the banners, that was because Sri Lanka did not “want to be associated with such an obsolete, abhorrent weapon.” Hah.

Actually, what happened was that in 2009 the Sri Lankan government won its brutal, 25-year-long civil war, during which it used land mines in enormous quantities. Now that it’s crushed its rebels, it doesn’t need land mines any more, so it joined the treaty. That’s the way these things work.

The Real Reason for Casualty Increases

Let’s cut to the chase. Why are the casualties that ICBL tracks going up?

Not because of land mines, or the 1999 treaty, or the fact the U.S. hasn’t signed it. They’re going up because the last few years have seen a lot of very bloody and indiscriminate wars during which a lot of improvised explosive devices were used, and those wars have left a lot of dud bombs lying around.

If those wars continue, and if improvised explosive device use continues to spread (as it assuredly will), casualties will go up. If they stop, casualties will in time go down. That’s it.

To be fair, the ICBL mischaracterizes its own findings too, so we shouldn’t just blame lazy, left-wing journalists. When the ICBL released its report back in December, it claimed that “a few intense conflicts … have resulted in very high numbers of mine casualties.”

If you took the word “mine” out of that sentence, it would be correct. But the ICBL can’t resist hyping its own cause.

Back in 2014, the land mine banners were crowing that their favorite treaty was making land mines a “weapon of the past.” But in the same year, when I looked at this issue for the first time, I made this prediction. It’s turned out to be completely correct:

The amount of unexploded ordnance in the world—and the number of [improvised explosive devices] used and [anti-personnel land mines] laid—is a lagged function of the number and viciousness of the world’s wars. The late 1980s and 1990s saw a lot of these wars, in Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia/Eritrea, and the former Yugoslavia, among other places.

It’s not surprising that, as some of these wars cooled and unexploded [ordnance] was cleared, the number of casualties recorded by ICBL for its Landmine Report has declined. As war has come to Syria and Ukraine, and returned to Afghanistan, the next decade is likely to see more casualties. The anti-land-mine treaty is largely irrelevant to these trends.

Of course, the Times closes by blaming President Donald Trump. If only he wasn’t such a meanie, it sniffs, the U.S. would give up on cluster munitions, sign the land mines ban, and that good old moral suasion would kick into effect.

Nonsense.

Leaving aside the fact that moral suasion isn’t going to work on Assad and ISIS, all of these 2016 casualties—every one of them—occurred when President Barack Obama was leading from behind.

Maybe what was needed then—and now—wasn’t more U.S. signatures on treaties. Maybe it was more U.S. leadership to stop, or to win, those wars in Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal