Laos Takes Center Stage in Cluster Bombs Treaty

BANGKOK – After being relegated to the shadows for decades by its more powerful neighbors, Laos is finally taking the lead role in a global campaign to ban the use of cluster bombs.

It is a role that the poverty-stricken South-east Asian nation of 6.3 million people easily qualifies for. After all, it is the country most affected by the deadly payload it has borne since the U.S. military intervention in the region nearly four decades ago. 

In November, Vientiane will be hosting the first meeting of state parties to a new disarmament treaty, the Cluster Munitions Convention (CMC), which came into force on Aug. 1. This treaty has been ratified by 37 of the 107 countries that signed it since it was opened for endorsements in Oslo in December 2008. 

Japan is the only other Asian country besides Laos to have ratified the convention. The Asian signatories to the treaty include Afghanistan, Indonesia and the Philippines. 

"This convention is a humanitarian instrument in nature that aims to liberate ourselves from fear and threat of cluster bombs," said Saleumxay Kommasith, director general of the department of international organizations at the Lao foreign ministry. "We view our role in the cluster ban treaty as a contributor to the global effort to ban cluster munitions." 

Vientiane’s involvement is also a pillar of the country’s non-belligerent foreign policy, Saleumxay told IPS. "Implementing the Convention on Cluster Munitions is a means to maintaining peace and security in the region and in the world. It is part of the disarmament effort that the international community is pursuing." 

Laos, in fact, will be a key testing ground of this landmark treaty, which seeks to ban the use, production and transfer of cluster bombs, in addition to destroying existing stockpiles of this deadly weapons within eight years and clear, in 10 years’ time, land contaminated by cluster munitions. The CMC also calls on the international community to assist cluster munitions survivors and affected communities. 

Laos’ neighbors like Cambodia and Vietnam, which are also affected by cluster bombs, have not come on board the CMC but "will be keenly following its progress before signing up, we understand," said Alfredo Lubang, head of the South-east Asia office of the non-governmental Nonviolence International, which has been campaigning for the CMC. "They have some reservations that once they sign, they will not be able to meet the obligations of the treaty." 

"Success in Laos will depend on the global commitment by countries that have resources to give assistance to nations like Laos," added Lubang. "It is a major humanitarian challenge since so much land has to be cleared of cluster bombs and affected communities have to be helped." 

The daunting challenge in this communist-ruled country, as well as its neighbors, stems from the deadly legacy left over from the United States’ war in Vietnam, which ended in defeat for Washington in 1975. During that conflict that also spread to Vietnam’s neighbors, U.S. warplanes dropped more than two million tonnes of bombs over Laos. This, according to U.N. data, is more than the explosives dropped in Europe during World War II. 

These air strikes, which saw U.S. planes launch nearly half a million bombing missions from 1964 to 1973, targeted the destruction of the North Vietnamese troops’ supply route called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which also passed through eastern Laos. 

Most of these explosives – some 270 million – were cluster munitions, better known in Laos as ‘bombies’. After being dropped from larger bombs that contained 300 to 600 cluster bombs, these bombies fanned out across a wide area on undulating terrain. 

Nearly four decades later, U.S.-made cluster munitions continue to exact a heavy price, according to the National Regulatory Authority for Unexploded Ordnance/ Mine Action in Laos. Close to 30 percent of these bombies "failed to detonate" and "approximately 80 million bombies remained in Laos after the war," it reveals. 

The civilian toll has been grim as well. Over 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidents between 1968 and 2008, states the UXO regulatory body. "Forty-one out of the 46 poorest districts in Laos have UXO contamination." 

"Laos has more experience with cluster munitions than any other country around the world," said Stan Barbant, a senior adviser on UXO at the United Nations Development Program’s Vientiane office. "It knows the damage that cluster munitions cause to the people and it knows better than anyone the long-term consequences of cluster munitions on people and communities." 

"The problem generated by the use of cluster munitions and other weapons 40 years ago is just huge," Barbant told IPS from the Lao capital. "The major weakness (in current international help to clear UXO in Laos) is victim assistance." 

But the new treaty does provide for help for UXO victims that humanitarian groups here welcome. "The government of Laos has identified nine target provinces for UXO clearance," said Linthong Siphavong, spokesman for the Laos office of the Mine Advisory Group (MAG), a British humanitarian organization. "The national growth and poverty eradication scheme promotes UXO decontamination as one of three key poverty-related programs." 

This is because poverty rates are higher in villages contaminated by bombies. According to the U.N. World Food Program, UXO contamination has "been an obstacle to agriculture production, thus reducing the potential livelihood outcomes."

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Author: Marwaan Macan-Markar

Marwaan Macan-Markar writes for Inter Press Service.