Bangkok – A campaign to rid the world of cluster munitions has still to rope in the U.S. government, a major producer and stockpiler of the deadly payload, on the eve of a key global conference in Laos to ban its production and use.
The mixed messages that Washington has been sending are expected to hover over the historic cluster munitions conference to be held Nov. 9-12 in Laos, a poverty-stricken South-east Asian country still grappling with the legacy of the bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes four decades ago.
Thus far, there are little signs that a U.S. government delegation will be attending the meeting as observers.
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“We are hoping they (the U.S. government) will send a delegation even at the last moment,” says Thomas Nash, coordinator of the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), a global network of civil society groups that have thrown their weight behind the world’s newest disarmament treaty, the Cluster Munitions Convention.
“The U.S. government is well aware of the problem in Laos,” Nash told IPS ahead of the first international conference that follows the U.N. disarmament treaty’s coming into force in August 2010.
The inaugural meeting of the state parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, as it is formally known, is expected to bring delegates from over 100 countries and activists from nearly 400 non-governmental organisations to the Lao capital, Vientiane.
Washington’s absence is of little surprise in light of the distance that the U.S. government has put between itself and this latest international law, which is meant to save lives that continue to be lost long after cluster munitions have been dropped.
“The U.S. did not directly participate, even as an observer, in the diplomatic Oslo Process in 2007 and 2008 that resulted in the Convention on Cluster Munitions,” reveals the ‘Cluster Munition Monitor 2010’, a report released in the Thai capital on the eve of next week’s meeting.
“The U.S. did not engage in the work of the convention in 2009 and 2010 … (nor did it) attend the Berlin Conference on the Destruction of Cluster Munitions in June 2009,” added the 286-page report, which seeks to monitor the ban on the production, trade, stockpiling, use, as well as the impact of the cluster munitions.
Yet even though it is not a signatory to this disarmament treaty, Washington supports a range of humanitarian programmes coping with the legacy of cluster munitions in concert with NGOs. Landlocked Laos itself has been receiving such assistance since the mid-1990s, with the U.S. reportedly pumping in two million dollars annually for initiatives to clear cluster bombs.
“The United States has been the largest contributor to clear cluster munitions in Laos,” says Stephen Goose, executive director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby. “The U.S. insists on using the weapons but also spends money to clear up the mess afterwards.”
But this paradox in U.S. government policy toward cluster munitions also cuts the other way, reveals Goose, who is also the editor of the ‘Cluster Munition Monitor 2010’. “Most of Washington’s NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) allies have joined the convention and they are bound not to help the U.S.” in keeping or transporting these weapons, he adds.
This means that Washington’s European military allies “cannot help refuel trucks or planes carrying these weapons for the U.S.,” Goose says.
Washington, however, is not alone among the world’s producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions that have not signed the disarmament convention, which was opened for signature in December 2008 and has secured endorsements from 108 countries.
China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Russia are among the biggest producers of cluster munitions that have given the new convention the cold shoulder.
Laos has been at the vanguard of this campaign to give the international treaty more teeth in Asia, becoming the first in the continent to ratify the convention. But only four other countries in the region have signed and ratified the treaty – Fiji, Japan, Samoa and New Zealand.
Lao government officials are hoping the November event will help secure more ratifications from South-east Asia, which is among the regions most affected by cluster munitions decades after U.S. military intervention there.
Apart from Laos, neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia were targets of cluster munitions during the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam, which Washington lost in 1975.
During that conflict, U.S. warplanes dropped more than two million tonnes of bombs over Laos, an amount that according to U.N. data exceeds the explosives dropped in Europe during World War II.
These air strikes, involving close to half a million bombing missions from 1964 to 1973, were meant to destroy the North Vietnamese supply route, called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, that passed through eastern Laos.
An estimated 270 million of these explosives were cluster munitions, called ‘bombies’ in Laos. After being dropped from larger bombs that contained 300 to 600 cluster bombs, the bombies spread across a large terrain and caused damage there.
But there were also millions of bombies that did not explode after they were dropped, and these continue to exact a heavy toll today. More than 50,000 people were killed or injured in unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidents between 1968 and 2008, states a UXO regulatory body in Laos.
“Laos topped the list of cluster munition casualties in 2009,” says Goose. “It accounted for a third of the casualties that year.”
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