The Sacramento Bee: Viewpoints: U.S. should commit to clear unexploded ordnance in Laos

Posted: Jul 11, 2012

By Elaine Russell

Wednesday, Jul. 11, 2012 – I have traveled to Laos – a beautiful country with warm, friendly people – on five occasions in recent years and seen firsthand the human suffering and devastation inflicted by unexploded ordnance. Close to one-third of the land is littered with millions of unexploded cluster bombs and other ordnance as a result of massive U.S. bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War. About 100 Laotians, many of them children, are injured or killed each year by unexploded ordnance, and more than 20,000 people have lost their lives or been injured since the war ended in 1973.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to make a historic stop today in Vientiane, Laos, on her way to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This will be the first visit by a secretary of state to Laos in 57 years. She will meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and other senior government officials.

I hope Secretary Clinton will use this rare opportunity to reaffirm to the people of Laos that the United States is committed to providing significant, long-term assistance for the clearance of unexploded ordnance and victim assistance. This support was recently acknowledged in the Fourth U.S.-Laos Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue and by Undersecretary Maria Otero, who made cooperation on unexploded ordnance a central element of her June visit to Laos.

While the U.S. government has contributed to clearance of unexploded ordnance in Laos for nearly two decades at modest levels, past funding has not begun to match the enormity of the problem. Only 1 percent of contaminated lands have been cleared to date, and victim assistance and health care providers are underfunded for the number and severity of casualties. It breaks my heart when I meet young people and farmers who have lost an arm or leg to a cluster bomb, forever changing their lives, or families whose main breadwinner has been killed, leaving them struggling emotionally and financially to get by. The United States must do more to help those harmed by U.S. bombs 40 years later.

The critical need for significant and sustained funding has been recognized by international and U.S. government agencies. In a 2010 report, the State Department Office of the Inspector General called the clearance program one of the most important political and economic activities the United States currently pursues in Laos, but warned that it is endangered by inconsistent funding. “The program has made many strides in removing deadly UXO from Lao soil in recent years,” and “to risk losing such gains would be a poor choice at this moment in the improving U.S.-Lao dialogue.” Also in 2010, the United Nations took the unprecedented step of adding clearance of unexploded ordnance as a Ninth Millennium Development Goal for Laos.

The U.S.-based nonprofit Legacies of War has been advocating for increased and sustained U.S. funding for the Lao UXO sector since 2004. Through Legacies’ efforts and with support from other organizations working in the UXO sector, Congress increased funding from an average of $2.7 million per year to $5.1 million and $5 million for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, and $9 million for 2012.

In 2011, six former U.S. ambassadors to Laos wrote a joint letter to Secretary Clinton endorsing Legacies of Wars’ call for $10 million per year for 10 years “to strengthen and secure the Lao UXO sector’s capacity and bring its already effective programs to scale.” In the 2012 budget omnibus report, Congress specifically recognized the responsibility of the United States to prioritize the “clearance of unexploded ordnance in areas where such ordnance was caused by the United States,” such as in Laos. The draft Senate appropriations report language for 2013 reflects this statement by recommending an appropriation of a record $10 million for unexploded ordnance programs in Laos.

On this historic visit to Laos, I urge Secretary Clinton to make a similar pledge to pursue a long-term, sustained commitment of $10 million a year for the next 10 years to bring an end to a 40-year-old legacy of war in Southeast Asia and help create a new legacy of peace and economic growth with an important ASEAN partner.

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