Killing fields revisited

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Southeast Asia, the most-heavily bombed place on earth, takes three different approaches to a treaty that could beef up their efforts to clear up UXO

Laksamy Voralath (L) at his home in Nabor Village, Savanakhet Province, Laos. Three years ago, while digging for scrap metal, he struck a bomblet which exploded claiming his right eye and two fingers on his left hand. Hours later, doctors had to amputate his right hand. He has since become an international advocate for the ban.

Last week, representatives from 121 countries gathered in the Lao People's Democratic Republic to discuss how they could rid the world of cluster munitions.

The First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions gathered 108 signatories to a treaty that effectively bans the production, use and transfer of the weapons. Forty of those countries have already ratified the international treaty, which went into force on August 1 of this year.

Before the meeting concluded in Vientiane, a 10-year-old Laotian girl was killed while playing with an unexploded bomblet on her way home from school. Her sister, 15, survived with serious injuries.

After more than a half-century of development, cluster munitions - weapons that scatter multiple bombs or bomblets over a target area continue to kill innocent people.

After being dispersed over a battlefield many sub-munitions remain in the ground as duds. They can lie there for generations, waiting to be disturbed by a campfire, a farmer's hoe or a child's hand.

Nowhere is the problem worse than in Southeast Asia, where the US dropped a combined payload of 383 million sub-munitions on Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam from 1965- 1975.

The US state department estimates that three out of ten failed to explode.

Laos leads the fight

Laos has become the poster child of the Convention on Cluster Munitions - strong evidence that the weapons do not serve a legitimate military purpose and inevitably result in unconscionable civilian casualties.

"Every time someone tries to argue that there's a legitimate military purpose," said one negotiator from the Cluster Munitions Coalition, "we roll out Laos."

When the Michigan-sized nation became involved in the process three years ago, Laos had no cluster munitions stockpile to destroy. It has never manufactured or transported the weapons.

Laos had little to lose by signing on to the convention and a great deal to gain.

In addition to banning the use of the weapons, Article 5 of the treaty obliges wealthy States Parties to provide "technical, material and financial assistance to States Parties affected by cluster munitions, aimed at the implementation of the obligations of this Convention."

Following the war, the three Southeast Asian nations affected never received the kind of vigorous aid and reconstruction that Europe enjoyed following the end of World War II. Instead, the nations became the victims of international embargos and further geopolitical manipulation.

Despite the fact that this treaty provides a window to much-needed aid, Cambodia and Vietnam have hesitated to sign. Both countries have stated that they are "studying" it.

Saleumxay Kommasith, director general of Laos' Department of International Organizations, said that in the period leading up to and including the conference, Laos secured pledges worth more than US$30 million. Additionally, Laos' central role in the treaty negotiations drew wide international attention to its status as the most-bombed country, per capita, in history. Six million dollars were committed by non-US donors for 2011 alone.

Starting in 1993, the US (still, the largest donor) began contributing about $2 million annually to clearance efforts in Laos "” a sum equal to the money spent in a single day of the bombing campaign.

In the past three years, US funding for clearance has gone up to around $5 million per year.

The country needs every cent. One senior de-miner from Laos UXO estimated that the country has cleared just one percent of all contaminated land. In 2002, the Japan International Cooperation Agency released a survey estimating that 236 square kilometers of agricultural land remain contaminated by unexploded ordnance.

Trouble in the Kingdom

For a long time, the treaty's organizers and negotiators believed Cambodia would play the role that Laos assumed. It had been an enthusiastic supporter of the idea during the early stages of the treaty.

"Cambodia supports this Oslo appeal to ban cluster munitions which cause unacceptable harm to civilians and will become an active participant in this process," Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, said in March, 2007.

At the 2008 negotiations in Dublin, Cambodia's delegation pushed for "the most comprehensive and immediate ban possible, without any exceptions" according to the Cluster Munitions Monitor.

Since then, Cambodia has distanced itself from any obligation to sign.

Kommasith, of Laos' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, believes Cambodia's recent border tensions with Thailand have stymied its enthusiasm for disarmament.

Others say that Cambodia ran into organizational roadblocks. "Basically the foreign ministry forgot to tell the Ministry of Defense," one treaty negotiator told Thanh Nien Weekly. "They were all ready to sign when the MOD called and said: "˜you're banning what?'"

In the meantime, de-mining project managers have reported a significant drop in funding, which they attribute to "donor fatigue." The manager of one UXO clearance project said that his organization planned to "phase out" its operation because casualties had simply fallen too low.

"Nowadays, UXO kills about as many people in Cambodia per year as lightning," he said. "Cambodia has other problems."

The head of another demining effort told the Phnom Phenh Post that, if the fatigue persisted, she feared she would have to cut her staff by 40 percent.

Vietnam, in or out?

Kommasith said Vietnam sent a large delegation to the meeting and issued a statement that he described as "positive." He suspects his friendly neighbor is concerned about stockpiles of aged weapons it seized from American bases. "Those can cost a great deal of money to destroy," he said.

The matter has not been so clear in treaty negotiations.

"Some officials have said that Vietnam does not have a stockpile, while others have been less than certain," according to a May report issued by Thomas Nash, the Cluster Munitions Coalition Coordinator.

In May, Vietnam's ambassador to New Zealand released a position paper on the matter.

"Our concern is that in the convention, the obligation of solving the devastating consequences which [were] caused by the usage of cluster munitions in the past is laid primarily on the shoulder of the victim states while the international cooperation and assistance mechanism has not sorted out any specific action plan or program yet."

At the last week's meeting, a 66-point action plan was hammered out giving all States Parties between six months and a year to map out a de-mining plan, compile victim stats and begin stockpile destruction.

Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a list of questions requesting an updated position on the treaty.

The US rained down nearly half a million sub-munitions on Vietnam during the war. Since 1999, the superpower has contributed about $10 million in bilateral aid for UXO removal here; Japan donated $13 million during the same period.

The aid has not come fast enough.

"Vietnam estimates that 42,000 people have been killed [by unexploded ordnance] since 1975," according to Thao Griffiths, country director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

Griffiths' organization has worked closely with the Ministry of Defense in conducting surveys of the nation's most affected areas and clearing contaminated land. Last year, the organization funded demining crews that cleared 1,354 of Vietnam's estimated 6.6 million hectares of bomb-addled countryside. According to Thao, a relatively large de-mining force is operating in Vietnam.

Based on the numbers provided by the Ministry of Defense, international funding is comparable to the pre-treaty aid received by Laos.

At previous international meetings, Vietnam had implored the donor community for further international aid.

But, as a non-signatory, it may be prove increasingly harder to secure.

Griffiths, who attended the conference in Vientiane as an observer, said that signing the convention could provide much needed funding for the effort.

"I believe that [signing the treaty] would be a helpful tool for Vietnam to mobilize support from the foreign donors to address the problem of UXO contamination," she wrote in an e-mail.

Nash, of the Cluster Munitions Coalition, has said that there is simply nothing to lose at this point from signing on.

"We [know] that the resources provided as a result of the treaty are likely to be highest in the early years after entry into force, so there's every interest in joining now," he wrote via e-mail. "It's inconceivable that one might get less funding by joining the treaty than otherwise."

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