By Roos Boer
For most people 1 August will pass as an ordinary day. But that is not the case for the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). Today marks the two year anniversary of the entry into force of the CCM, that became binding international law on 1 August 2010. What better place to spend this historic anniversary than in Lao PDR?
I was here two years ago when all the CCM states joined for the first time to discuss the implementation of the ban on cluster bombs. It was only fitting to host this meeting in Lao PDR, the most heavily contaminated country with unexploded cluster munitions in the world.
I am not the only one who travelled to Lao because of its cluster munitions problem. A few weeks back, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton visited Lao PDR – almost 40 years after the Vietnam War had ended. Clinton visited the NGO COPE that works to help victims of cluster munitions with prosthetics and rehabilitation. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped the unimaginable number of 270 million cluster munitions on Lao PDR, which equals 2 million tons of bombs. A rather devastating and deadly legacy.
I am in the Thateng district in the south of Lao. I am here to visit a demining team of the Norwegian NGO Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA). We have been working with them for years now within the international Cluster Munition Coalition. First with the goal to establish an international treaty against cluster bombs, and now to ensure the provisions of the CCM are implemented. Unlike IKV Pax Christi, our Norwegian colleagues have a department that actually clears contaminated land of cluster munitions remnants. Every day their team heads out into the fields of Lao to get rid of unexploded sub munitions in order to prevent that the cluster bombs that were left behind claim more lives.
When I take a look around me, I see farmers cultivating their beautifully rustic land. The land is filled with coffee plantations and other crops. Before we enter the field, I have to write down my blood type and team leader Ko carefully explains that I have to stay next to him at all times and can’t touch anything, no matter what. Because the sub munitions lay approximately 20 centimeters beneath the surface, it’s impossible to spot the danger by merely looking. All of the sudden, the landscape around me looks strikingly different. The farmers here have no choice. They have to work in order to earn a living to support their families. Even though they are aware that the land is contaminated by sub munitions, they still plough their lands to sow and harvest their crops. I wonder which areas have been cleared and which haven’t yet. Which farmers are out of harms way, and which are still in very real danger. A little while later, I discover that the farmers work in clearly marked areas. Those marked laps of land have already been demined by NPA.
Unexploded sub munitions
Five minutes later I find myself in the area that is still contaminated with sub munitions. Numerous flags are planted throughout the field, next to which a hole has been dug. When I look down, I can see the outlines of the uncovered sub munitions. Most of them are BLU 26 sub munitions; a perfectly shaped round ball with a diameter of around 5 centimeters. The number of flags scattered around the field make me nervous. I am painfully aware of where I place my feet. No easy task when you’re also juggling a camera and a microphone at the same time.
My mind takes me back to how I spent this day last year. Precisely one year ago, I stood on a famous square in The Hague together with a group of cheerleaders to encourage the Netherlands – for which the CCM had officially entered into force that very day– to implement the CCM as strictly as possible.
What a different world I find myself in this year, amongst a highly dedicated demining team somewhere in the south of Lao where I see first hand how very carefully and slowly the country is made safe and free of unexploded cluster munitions again.
Of course it is not just in Lao where the lives of civilians are affected by cluster munitions. In countries all over the world unexploded cluster munitions still threaten the lives of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lebanon, Chad, Libya, Cambodia, Serbia, and Colombia, to name a few.
No more cluster munitions
The notion that cluster munitions cause great humanitarian harm is recognized worldwide and is the reason that to date, 111 countries have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions. On 1 August 2010 the convention became binding international law. Countries that have joined the CCM are not only prohibited to use cluster munitions ever again, they are also obliged to destroy their stockpiles, help victims and their communities, and clear unexploded cluster munitions remnants to make contaminated land safe again. Now, 2 years later, a lot of work has been done.
Just a few high lights: 11 CCM countries have completed their stockpile destruction and a total of 68,2 million sub munitions have been destroyed. In 2010, 18,5 square kilometers of land have been cleared; an area about the size of 2370 soccer fields. It places these numbers in an entirely new perspective now that I see how much careful work goes into clearing even a centimeter of land. Especially when the farmers here tell me what a relief it is to be able to work their lands without having to worry about accidentally hitting a hidden explosive sub munition.
The team informs me that of the 270 cluster munitions that were used, an estimated 80 million sub munitions did not explode and was left spread around the country. It is estimated that thousands of square kilometers of land is still contaminated with unexploded cluster munitions remnants. Around 50,000 people got killed or were injured by unexploded ordnance in the period 1964-2008. Of this 50,000, some 20,000 victims fell after the conflict had already ended. And like I said, Lao PDR is not the only country that still suffers the devastating effects of cluster bombs.
My experience today really hits home again how important constant dedication and commitment to this issue is. Here in the fields of Lao, I witness the very real impact the CCM has on the daily reality of civilians. The ban on cluster bombs has many different dimensions. There is the political and diplomatic side to the treaty. The side that takes place in international conference rooms and national ministries, and that decides on demining grants or whether a legal prohibition on investing in cluster bomb producers should be applied. Then there is the more practical and executive side to the convention; the men and women that use mine detectors to locate unexploded sub munitions and destroy them, and the people that ensure victims get adequate help to reintegrate into society.
We have been working for years now to make connection between these various dimensions in order to put a stop for all times to the horrendous harm that cluster munitions cause. At the end of her visit, Clinton said that “we have to do more”. She is absolutely right, but it wouldn’t harm the US to start by taking a long hard look at itself. The US might be a big international donor for mine clearance and victim assistance, but they haven’t joined the CCM. Indeed, not too long ago even the US were fiercely advocating for an alternative, very weak and potentially harmful protocol on cluster munitions. A protocol that diametrically opposed the words “do more”. Being here in Lao makes me even more relieved that negotiations on that protocol failed…
Difference between life and death
If you ask me, “do more”, should mean international commitment – both politically and financially – to ensure demining activities and victim assistance can be carried out and that all CCM countries strictly adhere to the obligations of the convention. Next to that, it is of the utmost importance that countries that haven’t joined the convention yet, do so without delay. The more countries that prohibit cluster munitions, the bigger the stigma on the use of these weapons. Every cluster bomb that is not used, that is not produced, that is destroyed, or that is cleared, means the difference between life and death and prevents that civilians have to live in long-lasting insecurity. The harrowing reports that the Syrian regime allegedly used cluster munitions against civilians make this realization all the more urgent.
I enjoy the gorgeous landscape of Lao, as well as the conversations I have with local farmers who tell me they are no longer afraid of working their lands. In a little while I’ll return to the international conference rooms. For me, and for all the states that have joined the CCM, the Third Meeting of States Parties is on the agenda. From 11-14 September CCM states will gather in Oslo, Norway to report on their efforts to implement the treaty. IKV Pax Christi will be there and urge countries to “do more” and do everything in their power to eradicate cluster munitions for good.
Interested to see how demining takes place in Lao PDR? Click here