Defense ministry: Anti-personnel landmines would hinder NATO allies

A minefield warning sign in Ukraine.
A minefield warning sign in Ukraine. Source: SCANPIX / AFP

The Ministry of Defense has reposnded to a draft proposal by EKRE MPs, calling for the use of anti-personnel mines and Estonia's withdrawal from the Ottawa Convention. According to the ministry, mines would not give Estonia a military advantage in deterring a potential attack, but would instead make it more difficult for NATO allies involved in collective defense operations.

According to the Ministry of Defense, "The use of passively deployed anti-personnel mines would not act as a strategic-operational deterrent (to an enemy), but would instead seriously limit the (potential) involvement of our allies in collective defense operations on Estonian territory."

The statement, which was prepared in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is intended as a response to a draft bill proposed by MPs from the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Reform MP Ants Laaneots, calling for Estonia to withdrawal from the 1997 Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction.

"There is no need now, nor in the foreseeable future, to withdraw from the Ottawa Convention or any other international treaties restricting the use of landmines," stressed the Ministry of Defense.

An assessment carried out by the ministry found, that there are at least four arguments against denouncing the Ottawa Convention.

-  First, there is no military necessity to do so, with none of the lessons learned so far from the war in Ukraine suggesting otherwise.

- Second, doing so would make it more difficult to involve allies in collective actions to defend Estonian territory, resulting in an overall negative impact on Estonia's defense capabilities;

- Third, a decision to withdraw from the treaty would not be understood by Estonia's allies and would lead to negative international attention and pressure;

- Fourth, the use of anti-personnel landmines would make complying with the principle of distinction, whereby. under the rules of warfare, combatants are differentiated from noncombatants, more difficult.

Estonia uses other types of mines

The Ministry of Defense did note, that mining is still an important part of Estonia's primary independent defense capability. However, the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) do not use the kind prohibited by international treaties, the main characteristic of which is their so-called passive activation. That is, their detonation in the presence of, or after making direct contact with, a person without the need for active control from the layer of the mine.

The EDF does make extensive use of other forms of mines, some of which are passive, though are permitted by international conventions.

Others used by the EDF are active, meaning detonation is controlled to ensure harm is inflicted upon the enemy and that, where possible, casualties are avoided, particularly for members of their own forces and civilians.

The Ministry of Defense went on to stress, that since the start of Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine in February, it is only the Russian side, which has employed types of anti-personnel mine prohibited by the Ottawa Convention. While causing losses to Ukrainian defense personnel and civilians, as well as creating additional work for Ukrainian deminers, their use has had no strategic or operational impact on combat operations.

Anti-personnel landmines would hinder allies' involvement

The ministry also pointed out, that in the event of attack from Russian, Estonia would be assisted by its NATO allies. If anti-personnel landmines were deployed to defend Estonian territory, this would create problems for the allies as they would not be able to use them under the Ottawa Convention.

"In a situation where all EU and NATO member states except the US are party to the Ottawa Convention, it would be practically impossible to hand over minefields or other barriers containing mines laid by the Estonian Defense Forces, which are prohibited by the Ottawa Convention, to the allies," said the ministry.

"The allies would not be allowed, and potentially would not know how, to use them."

"This means that were Estonia to unilaterally withdraw from the Ottawa Convention, the deployment of anti-personnel mines, which up to now have been banned by that treaty, would likely lead to significant restrictions to the activities of allied forces on Estonian territory.

Such a situation would not improve, but weaken Estonia's defense capabilities."

Defense Forces: Effect on enemy mainly psychological

According to Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), the possible use of passive anti-personnel mines would create an additional psychological effect, which may deter the enemy, but it would also lead to greater losses amongst Estonian and allied units as well as increased civilian casualties.

The EDF added, that in the event of a war on Estonian territory, the combined deployment of mines and other military equipment already in use, would have not only a physical impact on the enemy, but also a psychological one.

Negative foreign policy implications

The Ministry of Defense also highlighted, that while one of the only major countries, which does not adhere to the Ottawa Convention is the US, even it too is making moves toward compliance, with its use of anti-personnel landmines mainly limited to the Korean peninsula, where it has pledged to ensure the security of South Korea.

"In a situation where the use of passive anti-personnel mines is not supported the EDF, and no other NATO or European Union member state in a similar security position to ours is considering withdrawing from the Ottawa Convention, it is highly likely that Estonia would find sympathy for such an unprecedented move either in the European Union or more broadly in the context of the war in Ukraine," the ministry said.

"In the event of a withdrawal from the Ottawa Convention, Estonia would come under considerable international pressure, especially from countries that share similar values with us, as well as from various non-state groups. Withdrawal from the treaty would raise the need for a substantial increase in Estonia's mine assistance funding, in addition to an intensive and sustained campaign to explain that our decision to withdraw is not driven by humanitarian, but by security considerations," it added.


Legal issues

The Ministry of Defense also said, that when using any form of weapons, various humanitarian principles must be taken into account, including the principles of distinction and proportionality, as well as the avoidance of unnecessary harm and whether they can be justified to achieve military objectives.

This prohibits the use of weapons in a manner that does not distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets.

"Anti-personnel landmines make no distinction between an enemy combatant and a civilian. As the objective of humanitarian law is to minimize suffering in armed conflicts to the (minimum) extent necessary to achieve a military objective (with particular emphasis on the protection of civilians and non-combatants), the use of anti-personnel landmines is contrary to the objectives of humanitarian law, as it does not respect the principle of distinction," the ministry stated.

Moreover, the question also arises whether withdrawal from the Ottawa Convention would actually give Estonia the right to use anti-personnel landmines, as international humanitarian law prohibits  the use of weapons, ammunition, munitions and other forms of warfare intended to cause unnecessary injury or unjustifiable suffering.

In conclusion, the statement, which was signed by Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform), stressed that the ministry does not support the denunciation of the convention.

According to the Riigikogu members who tabled the draft bill to denounce the Ottawa Convention, the use of anti-personnel mines would help prevent enemy incursions into central and western Estonia.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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