Sacramento Bee: “Viewpoints: U.S. must clean up leftover bombs in Laos”

Posted: Mar 21, 2010

By Elaine Russell

I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from a colleague in Laos regarding yet another deadly accident. On Feb. 22 a cluster bomb that the U.S. dropped on Laos more than four decades ago killed five children and severely injured another. The children, ages 10 to 14, were feeding their water buffalo in a rice field when they found the bomb. They were the latest victims among the more than 300 new casualties that occur every year – one-third of them children, according to Lao government figures.

The e-mail went on to say that if this happened in the U.S., it would be a national outrage. Here, it is happening with sickening regularity, as it has for 40 years. Is anyone outraged? I am outraged, as all Americans should be, by this senseless and preventable killing. It is morally unconscionable that the U.S. has allowed this suffering to go on for four decades.

My first visit to Laos was in 2006. Standing on the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang province, I heard explosions. My guide explained an unexploded ordnance clearance team was detonating cluster bombs found by local villagers. At least he hoped it was the clearance team and not an unsuspecting farmer who had hit a cluster bomb with his hoe.

Like most Americans, I did not know about the massive bombing campaign the U.S. waged over Laos from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. Or the estimated 8 million to 24 million unexploded cluster bomblets and vast quantities of other unexploded ordnance we left behind in a country about half the size of California. Or the Lao government’s estimate of 34,000 civilian casualties caused by unexploded munitions since the war ended in 1973.

On returning home, I began working with the U.S.-based organization Legacies of War to educate the public on this issue and advocate for increased U.S. funding for clearing unexploded ordnance (UXO) from Laos.

As one of the poorest nations in the world, Laos has been dependent on the United Nations, the United States and other countries to fund their UXO clearance programs in place since 1994. While the U.S. has been the largest contributor, funding remains woefully inadequate.

The United States has contributed an average of nearly $3 million a year for 16 years. In contrast, we spent $2 million a day (about $10 million in today’s dollars) for nine years bombing Laos. As a consequence, less than 1 percent of the contaminated lands have been cleared. And the casualties continue.

Now, an international agreement to ban cluster munitions is focusing attention on Laos and other countries affected by these weapons, bringing hope for an end to this tragedy. Just six days before the latest accident in Laos, the Convention on Cluster Munitions received final ratification. The agreement bans all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions and commits countries to clearing contaminated areas and providing victim assistance.

The 104 parties to the convention include all of Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and other nations from every continent. Regrettably, the U.S. has not signed the agreement and is unlikely to do so. However, the convention marks an important milestone for Laos, the country most severely affected by cluster munitions: the Lao government will host the first gathering of the parties to the convention in Vientiane in November 2010. As one of the first countries to sign and ratify the agreement, Laos has transcended its status as a victim of cluster munitions to become a key voice for their eradication.

By signing the convention, the Lao government committed to clearing cluster munitions from their country. Given the immense number of munitions and the remote mountainous terrain of many areas, it is not feasible to cost-effectively clear all contaminated lands. Instead, the Lao government adopted a 10-year strategy focused on clearing populated areas, and reducing UXO casualties from 300 to 100 per year.

It will take substantial increases in U.S. funding if Laos is ever going to make meaningful progress. As the rest of the world watches, the U.S. cannot continue to ignore its obligation to clean up the mess it left behind 40 years ago. Legacies of War and partner organizations are asking Congress to approve $7 million in fiscal year 2011, with additional increases in subsequent years. (Congress approved $5 million for 2010.) We must make the land safe once more for the people of Laos.

I am sure the U.S. government never intended for tens of thousands of civilians to be killed or maimed by bombs dropped so many years ago.

But that is exactly what is still happening today. And Americans should be outraged.

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