LAOS faced a major challenge in tackling the deadly legacy of wartime bombs, the country’s President Choummaly Sayasone said yesterday at a landmark conference aiming to speed the elimination of unexploded munitions.
“The Lao PDR is one of the most affected countries in the world by cluster munitions,” he said in a speech opening the first meeting of states that are party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The pact, which became international law on August 1, bans cluster bombs and entitles countries affected by them to financial help.
“Given [the] large scale of unexploded ordnance contamination, clearance and addressing its impacts on people’s life remain a significant challenge for our national development and poverty reduction,” Sayasone said, according to a prepared translation of his remarks.
“Against this backdrop, the Lao PDR needs to seek continued support from the international community.”
Christine Beerli, vice president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters that the experience of Laos was “a daily reminder of why we must ensure that such weapons are never used again”.
Laos’ National Regulatory Authority, which coordinates work on unexploded ordnance, says the country is the most heavily bombed nation on earth per capita, after the war in neighbouring Vietnam spilled over between 1964 and 1973.
Among the weapons dropped were 270 million cluster bomblets, which had an average failure rate of 30 percent, meaning that an estimated tens of millions of them remained scattered across the country, the NRA said.
Cambodia, too, was heavily affected by wartime bombing, with the United States dropping at least 26 million cluster sub-munitions on the country, according to the 2010 Cluster Munitions Monitor report. The report estimates that between 1.9 million and 5.8 million cluster munition remnants remain unexploded in Cambodia.
Launched from the ground or dropped from the air, cluster bombs split open before impact to scatter multiple bomblets over a wide area. Many fail to explode and can lie hidden for decades, posing a threat to unsuspecting farmers and children.
More than 1,000 government and military officials, charity workers and bomb victims, some of whom arrived in wheelchairs, have gathered for the four-day meeting in Vientiane. Hundreds of school children waving flowers lined the road to the theatre where the event opened. Sayasone said the meeting is “of historical significance” towards implementation of the charter.
Norway was the first country to sign the convention, followed by Laos. A total of 108 nations have signed the convention and more than 40 have ratified, but Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are among those that have yet to sign.
Cambodia has sent a delegation to this week’s meeting, but has so far indicated no intention to sign the convention, despite playing an instrumental role in drafting the convention.
Leng Sochea, deputy secretary general of the Cambodian Mines Action Authority, said yesterday that the government was still studying what effect the convention could have on Cambodia’s defence capabilities.
He said, however, that “without signing the convention, we will still eliminate these kinds of cluster munitions when we find them”.
Thoummy Silamphan, a 22-year-old victim of unexploded munitions strongly urged governments like Cambodia to join the convention. Speaking at the opening cermony, he recounted how aged just eight a bomblet blew off his left hand as he dug for edible bamboo shoots on the way home from school in rural Laos.
“We need your cooperation and for everyone to join together to help UXO victims,” Thoummy said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO