Laos Takes Centre Stage in Cluster Bombs Treaty (Thailand)

BANGKOK - After being relegated to the shadows for decades by its more powerful neighbours, 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 organisations at the Lao
foreign ministry. "We view our role in the cluster ban
treaty as a contributor to the global effort to ban cluster

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

Laos' neighbours 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 neighbours, 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 neighbours, 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 û some 270 million û 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 Programme'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

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 organisation. "The national growth and poverty
eradication scheme promotes UXO decontamination as one of
three key poverty-related programmes."

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

Von: Friday, 06 August 2010, News

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