Reflecting on the global cluster bomb ban, ten years on

Posted: Nov 30, 2020

Cluster Munition Coalition campaigners at the 1MSP (credit: Stefano Chiolo, 2010)

With the closing of the (virtual) Second Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Lausanne, Switzerland, this month marks an important milestone in global efforts to ban the weapon.

Ten years ago, all eyes were on Laos as 1,200 representatives from across the globe gathered in Vientiane for the first international meeting to discuss the status of the cluster bomb ban, which became international law in August 2010. It is formally known as the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (1MSP).

Participants included representatives of 121 governments, international organizations like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nearly 500 civil society campaigners from Afghanistan to Zambia. Although the United States government did not formally participate in the meeting, the Legacies of War delegation brought the voices of people from across America by organizing the Tapestry of  Hope exhibit, and also holding a side meeting on United States policy related to cluster munitions.

The Legacies of War delegation in front of the Tapestry of Hope Tuk Tuk during the 1MSP (credit: Stefano Chiolo, 2010)

While there are many types of unexploded ordnance in Laos, the vast majority are cluster munitions, which are large containers that can be dropped from the sky or launched from the ground and open up to spread up to hundreds of submunitions across an area the size of several football fields. These submunitions are also known as cluster bombs, or “bombies” in Laos, which is the country most affected by these weapons. They are indiscriminate both at time of use and for decades after. Around 30% of the bombies didn’t detonate on impact, remaining unexploded in the ground and making it unsafe to play, grow food, and build homes, hospitals, and schools.

It is estimated that the U.S. dropped 270 million cluster bombs on the Southeast Asian country from 1964 to 1973. Today, nearly 50 years after the bombing ended, approximately 80 million remain unexploded in the ground, covering about one third of the country.

Hosting the first meeting in Laos in 2010 afforded decision-makers with new ways to understand this issue beyond typical diplomatic discussions in conference rooms far from those most affected. It was an unprecedented opportunity for the global community to comprehend the long-lasting, devastating impact of the weapon while also learning from people in Laos how to successfully end the painful legacy that these cluster munitions leave behind.

As the Cluster Munition Coalition representative in Laos, I worked with my colleague Vilayphone “Titi” Choulamany and campaigners around the world to partner with the Lao P.D.R. government, the United Nations, embassies, Laotian organizations, and survivors, ensuring that everyone actively participated in all aspects of the meeting, both in the conference hall and beyond.

In addition to diplomatic discussions, the week-long program involved activities like a visit to clearance sites in Xieng Khouang, dance performances including people with disabilities, and a demonstration wheelchair basketball game.


Top Left: Dancers during the 1MSP reception at the COPE Visitors Center (credit: John Rodsted, 2010); Top Right: People playing wheelchair basketball at the COPE Visitor’s Center 1MSP reception (Credit: John Rodsted, 2010); Bottom: A BLU-24 submunition found in Laos (credit: Tracie Williams, 2010).

Reflecting on the past 10 years, there are numerous reasons to celebrate progress for Laos, and it is precisely this progress that motivates me to keep up the hard work.

Of course, there are quantifiable ways to do so. In 2010, the U.S. was providing $5.1 million for clearance and victim assistance in Laos. Today, following years of concerted advocacy by Legacies of War and our partners, the U.S. is on track to allocate $40 million for Laos for the upcoming fiscal year.

The drop in casualties is also noteworthy. In its 2010 report, the Cluster Munition Monitor documented 134 unexploded ordnance casualties, comprising 41 deaths and 93 injuries, while the most recent reports from 2017 note 41 casualties, which includes four deaths and 37 injuries. Any death or injury from unexploded ordnance is unacceptable, but the significant drop in casualties is a cause for optimism.

However, I believe it’s equally important to recognize the unquantifiable ways that the 1MSP has had an impact on efforts to rid the world of this weapon for good and to pave the way for a safe future in Laos.

Over the years, countless colleagues who joined the 2010 meeting remain engaged in this process, both in Laos and around the world. Many of the Lao P.D.R. Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff who worked on the 1MSP, including current Foreign Minister Saleumxay Khommasith, have subsequently been posted to the United Nations in New York City, where they continue to raise this issue in diplomatic discussions. Furthermore, representatives from other countries who joined the 1MSP now hold leadership roles in Laos at the United Nations and other international organizations. Laotian organizations dedicated to addressing this issue are growing and thriving.

Global members of the Cluster Munition Coalition continue to push for progress, too. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition’s 11th annual Cluster Munition Monitor report, the treaty is “having a significant impact in eliminating these weapons, assisting affected countries, and building a powerful stigma against cluster bombs.” At the close of the meeting in Lausanne, States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions called for all states to join the treaty, strengthen the global norm, and condemn any use, anywhere, by anyone.

And the influence on international decision-making processes continues to this day. While working at the United Nations in New York in the years following my time in Laos, I regularly reconnected with officials who came to the 1MSP and told me that their experience was a reference point for formulating stronger policies on the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Additionally, whenever I spoke about cluster munitions at the United Nations, I referenced the important role of Laos as both an affected country and as a leader, and I continue to do so in all facets of my role as the current Chair of the Board of Legacies of War.

Just last month, I moderated a Thip Khao Talk on bomb clearance in Laos with representatives from the Mines Advisory Group, Norwegian People’s Aid, and The HALO Trust. Over the years, all four of us have had experience working on this in Laos, and the Laotian representative from Norwegian People’s Aid continues to do so today. We all expressed a firm commitment to continuing this work until everyone in Laos can live in safety and peace.

Ten years on, it is clear that this continuous collaboration is necessary to have a lasting impact. With a strong push for the universalization of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and sustained support for bomb clearance and survivor assistance, I am confident that we can light new legacies not only in Laos, but all around the world together with our long-standing partners and friends.

Click here to learn more about the Second Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

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