24 April 2011

Laos and the Convention on Cluster Munitions

The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) is a treaty that was adopted on 30 May 2008 on Dublin, and opened for signature on 3 December 2008 in Oslo.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) signed the treaty on the day it was opened for signature, and ratified it on 18 March 2009.

As well as being one of the poorest countries in the world, Laos is one of the most afflicted by cluster munitions as a result of US bombing in the years 1964-73. The ordnance dropped included about 260 million cluster bombs (see Lao National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action [UXO-NRA] website here).  Not bad for a country whose population only reached 3 million in 1974 (see here).  That’s 90 bomblets per caput.

There is a substantial failure rate for these munitions, leaving large numbers of bomblets to lie in wait for unsuspecting farmers, foresters, fisherfolk, children and wildlife. On the subject of failure rates a January 2011 Congressional Research Service paper (see here) has this to say:

There appear to be significant discrepancies among failure rate estimates. Some manufacturers
claim a submunition failure rate of 2% to 5%, whereas mine clearance specialists have frequently
reported failure rates of 10% to 30%. A number of factors influence submunition reliability. These
include delivery technique, age of the submunition, air temperature, landing in soft or muddy
ground, getting caught in trees and vegetation, and submunitions being damaged after dispersal,
or landing in such a manner that their impact fuzes fail to initiate.

 UXO-NRA estimates that there are of the order of 80 million live bomblets remaining in the country, a figure which looks as though it is based on taking the upper estimate of 30% failure rate for 260 million bomblets – probably not unreasonable given the geographical characteristics of Laos.

The CRS report cited above quotes the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as estimating the number of unexploded cluster bomblets at between 9 million and 27 million, which looks on the low side to me, the upper estimate representing a failure rate of only 10% and the lower one being more in line with manufacturers’ claims of 2-5% failure. It nevertheless represents between 1.5 and 4 bomblets for every man woman and child in Laos (current population about 6.5 million).

The impact of this on Laos is horrifying.  According to UXO-NRA (here):

All 17 provinces in Laos suffer UXO contamination

-  25% of all villages are UXO contaminated

-  50,000 plus victims of UXO of all kinds (1964-2008)

-  20,000 casualties post-war (1974 on)

In the last decade there have been 300 UXO casualties per annum, of which 30% were caused by cluster bombs. Children represented 40% of the casualties.

As a State Party to the Convention Laos has quite onerous obligations under Article 4.1: it is required:

... to clear and destroy, or ensure the clearance and destruction of, cluster munition remnants located in cluster munition contaminated areas under its jurisdiction or control ... as soon as possible but not later than ten years from [the date of entry into force of the Convention].

Given that, 37 years after the cessation of hostilities, less than 1% of the bomblets have been made safe, this will require a remarkable acceleration of activity. A 4 September 2010 article (New case for US reparations in Laos) by Melody Kemp in Asia Times Online (see here) says:

... at the current rate of clean-up, UXO Laos/NRA estimates it will take 3,000 years to completely clear the country of all the explosive remnants left behind from US bombers.

The Convention imposes rather modest requirements upon States Parties that have used cluster munitions in another State Party (and of course none upon countries which are non-signatories, which include the United States, Russia, China and Israel): the using State Party is simply “strongly encouraged”

... to provide, inter alia, technical, financial, material or human resources assistance to the [other] State Party, either bilaterally or through a mutually agreed third party, including through the United Nations system or other relevant organisations, to facilitate the marking, clearance and destruction of such cluster munition remnants.

The United States will of course strongly protest that, even though it is a non-signatory to the Convention, it is contributing to the disposal of UXO in Laos. In Clearing the cluster bombs in Laos (The Guardian, 30 September 2010) US chargé d'affaires in Vientiane Peter Haymond responds (see here) directly to Melody Kemp’s article cited above, taking exception to her implication “that the United States has done little to assist in clearance of unexploded ordnance”. Unfortunately the figures he cites rather underline Kemp’s point:

This fiscal year, the US state department will spend more than $5m in Laos on a range of UXO-related activities, including more than $3.5m to fund the mine and UXO clearance operations both of the Lao government's own UXO clearance agency and of international clearance organisations operating in Laos.

Taking the ICRC’s estimates of unexploded submunitions, that $3.5 million represents between 13 and 39 cents per bomblet. I don’t think you get much bomb disposal for that sort of money.

1 comment:

Lorel said...

As Australia prepares to ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions it is important that our legislation strongly reflects the spirit and intent of the Convention. Cluster munitions campaigners are concerned about some details the bill. More debate is needed and amendments made to the bill.