Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS: Cambodia, Vietnam Differ from Laos in Cluster Bombs Ban

Irwin Loy

SEKONG, Laos, Nov 15 2010 (IPS) - On a windy morning in southern Laos in November, a team of deminers built a makeshift bunker out of sandbags and piled the barrier around a tiny explosive.

Somphong Chanthavong of the group Norwegian People's Aid in southern Laos shows deadly shrapnel retrieved from exploded cluster submunition. Credit: Irwin Loy/IPS

Somphong Chanthavong of the group Norwegian People's Aid in southern Laos shows deadly shrapnel retrieved from exploded cluster submunition. Credit: Irwin Loy/IPS

A thin electrical wire snaked its way from the bunker, 100 metres down a bumpy dirt road, to where the deminers had huddled.

Years ago, when this region of South-east Asia was engulfed in a simmering war of ideology, this pathway carved out of the hillside was a small part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The North Vietnamese army built its supply line through the mountains cutting through Laos, using the route to fuel its operations against the U.S.-backed south.

And so this area became the target of air strikes from the U.S. military. For a decade between 1964 to 1973, U.S. planes rained bombs down on the fields, roads and villages along the way. When the planes dropped cluster munitions, each bomb dispersed hundreds of tiny explosives on to the ground below. By the time the war ended, Laos had become the most heavily bombed country on the planet.

But though the fighting has long been over, the danger lingers. An estimated 30 percent of those cluster submunitions, or bombies, as they are known in Laos, failed to explode. In Laos’s impoverished south, they still litter villages and fields, making them impossible to farm. And each year, more men, women and children here stumble on the bombs, adding to a casualty toll that has already climbed beyond 50,000 in this country alone.

“Three! Two! One!” A deminer shouted a warning in Lao. A button is pressed and the distant bunker exploded, the blast echoing through the surrounding hills.


For Somphong Chanthavong, an operations coordinator for the group Norwegian People’s Aid, the sound represents one fewer bombie that can kill or maim his countrymen.

This remote province is one of the poorest in Laos. It is no coincidence, Somphong says, that it is also heavily contaminated with leftover weapons from a war that ended some 35 years ago.

“It affects the poor people,” the deminer said. “If they have land, they can work. They can grow rice and crops. If the land is contaminated by (unexploded weapons), it is like a booby trap.”

The Ho Chi Minh Trail stretched from North Vietnam into Laos, down to Cambodia and to the south. All three countries felt the effects of the U.S. air strikes and remain among the most contaminated in the world today. But while the supply line connected the three countries then, today, their governments have taken separate diplomatic approaches to the problem.

Laos has been an active proponent of a landmark treaty that bans the use of cluster bombs. On Nov. 9-12, Vientiane hosted the first high-level meeting of the Convention on Cluster Munitions since it came into effect in August.

Meanwhile, Cambodia and Vietnam have so far refused to sign the treaty, frustrating disarmament advocates who had hoped countries most affected by cluster bombs would take on leading roles in the ban.

“It’s countries like Vietnam and Cambodia where people are suffering,” said Thomas Nash, coordinator for the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), which has led the civil society push behind the ban.

“This treaty is not designed just to ban the weapon. It’s designed to help people. The whole motivation for the treaty is to end suffering. So it’s countries like Vietnam and Cambodia that count for us,” he added.

Cambodia was an early proponent of the treaty, but backed off when the convention was opened for signing in 2008. Cambodian officials maintain that they are supportive of the convention and intend to sign. But they have also offered various reasons for why they cannot, from border tensions with neighbouring Thailand to a need to assess their current stockpiles following decades of conflict.

Vietnam, too, has expressed support for the convention. But it has also warned that it may not be able to meet the treaty’s deadline to clear contaminated land.

However, both countries may be taking significant risks in not signing the treaty early on, Nash argues.

Advocates say international donor money that funds clearance projects in the region are barely adequate to maintain minimal levels. Officials in all three countries have warned of fluctuating funding levels that threaten clearance targets. But affected countries also have a greater chance of obtaining clearance funds if they are early adopters of such international conventions, Nash says.

“In the early years, the political momentum is the highest, the visibility is strongest and the flow of money and resources from donors to affected countries is probably also going to be highest,” Nash said. “I think Cambodia and Vietnam have every reason to join the convention and, really, no reason not to.”

Early on, at least, it appeared some countries were willing to offer new funding as the spotlight shone on Vientiane in November. By the time the conference ended, Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Switzerland had announced new funds for clearance activities in Laos totalling more than 6.7 million U.S. dollars, according to the CMC.

It is not an insignificant amount in a country where clearance operations cost 12 to 14 million dollars each year. The group Legacies of War argues that this figure must be more than doubled for Laos to meet its long-term clearance goals.

In the meantime, countries that have signed on to the cluster bomb treaty emerged from the Vientiane meeting with a clearer idea of how to implement their obligations under the convention.

While it requires countries to destroy stockpiles within eight years, states parties agreed to set individual timelines and budgets for doing so within one year. They must also identify all contaminated areas and develop plans to clear them within that time frame.

 
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