Today marks the International Day of Mine Awareness, a day where nations, civil society and communities reflect on their commitment to a world free of landmines and other explosive remnants of war.
Cambodia has many things to celebrate today. The Cambodian government was one of the first in the world to call for an international ban on landmines due to the devastating impact these weapons have on human security and development across Cambodia.
Cambodia was a key player in the Ottawa Process, the international negotiations that created the Mine Ban Treaty, and was one of the first nations to sign the treaty on December 3, 1997.
Since then, Cambodia has led the way on the implementation of this landmark treaty, with its mine action programs and national mine action bodies being recognised as some of the best and most effective in the world.
These programs have been supported by decades of political commitment to keeping mine action, and recognition for the rights of people impacted by explosive remnants of war, high on the agenda of the international political and humanitarian community.
But Cambodia is also plagued by another indiscriminate, legacy weapon: cluster munitions. A cluster munition is an explosive weapon designed to open mid-air and disperse smaller sub-munitions – anywhere between a dozen and a few hundred – across a large area of land.
The design of cluster munitions makes them inherently indiscriminate: it is impossible to aim a sub-munition, and they therefore pose as much risk to civilians or civilian infrastructure as they do to military targets.
Cluster munitions also have an appallingly high rate of detonation failure. It is estimated that up to two-thirds of sub-munitions fail to explode on impact, but their explosive mechanisms remain active – which leads to decades of contamination from hazardous unexploded bombs that will detonate indiscriminately when moved or touched.
Handicap International estimate that around the world a staggering 98 per cent of victims of cluster munitions are civilians, due largely to their enduring contamination of post-conflict areas.
This is the challenge Cambodia is currently facing. Cambodia suffered from heavy bombardment during the 1960s and 1970s, with some 80,000 cluster munitions – totalling around 26 million sub-munitions – dropped on the northern and eastern provinces.
For over 50 years, explosive remnants of cluster munitions have killed and severely injured Cambodians, and pose a constant threat to rural communities around the country.
Contamination from unexploded sub-munitions is inextricably linked to the slow development of rural areas, and to threats to food security and economic livelihoods – much of the ordnance littering the Cambodian countryside is buried in farmland, rendering valuable agricultural spaces unusable or overwhelmingly dangerous.
In 2008, the international community formally recognised the humanitarian suffering and development impacts caused by cluster munitions with the creation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). This international treaty outlaws the use, manufacture, stockpile and transfer of cluster munitions, and includes strong provisions for victim assistance and guidelines for clearance.
The government of Cambodia has not signed this treaty, and has very clearly stated they have no intention of doing so at this time.
That’s not to say that Cambodia hasn’t addressed this issue, at least in part. Civil society and national mine action bodies have made efforts to clear explosive remnants as part of their mine action programs, and victim assistance for survivors of cluster munition accidents is integrated into rehabilitation programs around the country.
But Cambodia is well-placed to do more than this, and a formal commitment to the CCM must be made to ensure contaminated land is cleared efficiently, ensure Cambodia’s stockpiles of these weapons are destroyed, and ensure the rights of victims are respected and their living conditions improved.
In addition to national accession, Cambodia is well-placed to use its legacy of success in addressing and advocating for landmine issues to discuss this issue on a regional level, so Southeast Asia can move together towards reducing the regional risk of cluster munitions.
Cambodia has demonstrated willingness to lead the ASEAN region on all matters of mine action by offering to host the newly formed ASEAN Regional Mine Action Centre (ARMAC) in Phnom Penh, to support ASEAN’s commitment to shared responsibility for comprehensive regional security.
Cambodia is expected to be the first country to chair the ARMAC’s steering committee, which presents an ideal and unique opportunity to raise this issue within ASEAN.
By raising accession to the CCM in a regional forum, Cambodia can once again position itself as a leader on issues regarding explosive remnants of war, while addressing security concerns to make ASEAN a safer, more secure region.
Cambodia also has the opportunity to extend previous work on universalisation of the Mine Ban Treaty to encourage all non-signatories in Asia to work towards a region free from the threat of landmines and cluster munitions.
As one of the most heavily contaminated countries in the world, Cambodia has a very clear practical and moral obligation to accession and ratification of the CCM – an obligation that we sincerely hope they will fulfil so the potential for future use of cluster munitions – and therefore, many more decades of death, disability and development delays – is eliminated.
Kimberley McCosker is the advocacy program manager at Handicap International and Gilles Nouzies is the country director of Handicap International.