Xieng Khuang Province, Lao PDR – Looking down from a window of our airplane, I see that the lush green landscape of the high plateau is pockmarked with brown craters, still empty of vegetation more than 30 years after they were made.
These are the scars of the U.S. government’s nine-year-long “secret” bombing campaign over this small, landlocked country that borders Vietnam to the east. U.S. bombing records show that over 20,000 missions involving the release of roughly 46 million cluster munitions occurred over Xieng Khuang Province.
The area was of strategic importance as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by North Vietnamese forces with the consent of Lao revolutionary forces to send supplies and personnel around the de-militarized zone in central Vietnam, cut through Xieng Khuang’s forests and mountains.
Six groups of foreign delegates, diplomats and representatives from international nonprofit organizations visited the province and a number of unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance sites during the recent First Meeting of Sates Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Vientiane, the capital of Lao PDR. Three of us from Clear Path International, myself as communications director, our executive director and the manager of a program we’re starting here in Laos, were among the visitors.
CPI is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that provides medical and socio-economic assistance to UXO survivors, their families and their communities in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. In Laos, we are partnering with the Lao Women’s Union to provide low-interest loans to female heads of households in Xieng Khuang Province to finance home-based businesses.
Our funding for this and other programs comes from the U.S. Department of State Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. During the convention, there was a good deal of discussion in side events about the United States not being a signatory to the convention, which establishes international law to ban the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions and mandates their destruction. To date, 108 countries have adopted the convention.
And while the US was without official representation, officials from the embassy here did attend many of the workshops. In September 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the US has not participated in the convention because there are no good substitute munitions and that the “elimination of cluster munitions from our stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and our coalition partners at risk.”
Under the current policy issued by the Department of Defense in 2008, by the end of 2018 the US will no longer use cluster munitions with more than a 1 percent chance of not exploding upon impact. Of the estimated 3 million tons of bombs dropped on Lao soil, about a third failed to go off when dropped. They continue to claim lives, usually those of Lao children, long after the fighting ended.
It is the hope of the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international civil society campaign working to eradicate these weapons, and other INGOs including ours that the US will eventually join the treaty and ban their use altogether. President Barack Obama’s administration has not yet conducted a review of U.S. policy on cluster munitions, but Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) along with 14 other members of the Senate have written to the president, urging him to conduct a thorough review of the national policy on the weapons.
The US has acknowledged use of cluster munitions in Afghanistan in 2002 and in Iraq in 2003. In June 2010, Amnesty International reported that it appears the US used cluster munitions in an attack on an alleged al-Qa ‘ida training camp in Yemen in December 2009, but neither the US nor Yemeni governments have responded publicly to the Amnesty International allegations.
Despite unwillingness by the US to completely abandon use of cluster munitions, it reportedly has been and will continue to be the largest contributor to UXO clearance and victim assistance here in Laos, having spent $51 million to date. In 2010, the US will have spent $5.1 million on UXO efforts by the year’s end, an amount that is expected to increase to $7 million for 2011.
During the visit to one of several clearance sites in Xieng Khuang, CPI staff and others witnessed – from a safe distance – the detonation of 36 cluster bombs. The blasts, timed to go off within minutes of each other, sent enormous plumes of smoke, dirt, stones and shrapnel into the pale blue sky and the explosions echoed off the surrounding hills.
Each time, I felt a thud deep in my chest. At one point, I exhaled deeply, not realizing I had been holding my breath, thankful that no lives had been lost, no injuries sustained – this time.
Heavy Bombing Campaign In Lao Leaves Scars, Live Munitions
Karen Matthee | Clear Path International | November 20