Vientiane, 1 August 2018 – Exactly eight years ago on this day, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a historic treaty that obliged countries to refrain from developing, using, stockpiling or assisting other nations in using cluster munitions, entered into force after being ratified by 30 nations. Lao PDR was very active during the negotiations of this convention in 2007-2008 and was among those thirty nations that made the courageous leap towards ensuring that mankind enjoys a future free from the hazards of cluster munitions. Leading by example has proven to be a fruitful decision as 103 nations have ratified the treaty and joined the front against cluster munitions since 2010.
However, a lot of work remains to be done.
It is sad that cluster munitions continue to be utilised in conflicts around the globe and included as an integral part of their strategies. The development of dozens of countries continues to be hampered by past conflicts, as unexploded ordnance prevents cultivation of farmland and building of desperately needed infrastructure.
As one of the most heavily bombed nations in history that struggles with the challenges posed by UXO even four decades after the war, Lao PDR has possibly more credibility than any other nation on earth to speak on the issue of cluster munitions. This should be seen as an opportunity for Laos to turn its national challenge into leadership on the world stage. By raising awareness of the hazards of UXO, Laos can serve as a voice of conscience in the international community, when the issue of cluster munitions is dealt with.
This is precisely what Laos did this July during the UN High-Level Political Forum in New York City, when H.E. Mr. Saleumxay Kommasith, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lao PDR, chaired a side-event dedicated to Lao PDR’s national Sustainable Development Goal 18, Lives Safe from UXO. With the whole world watching, Mr. Kommasith presented an update on Lao PDR’s triumphs and tribulations in dealing with the legacy of UXO. This was an invaluable opportunity for Laos to remind the world about the fact that cluster munitions continue to haunt a nation long after all weapons have been laid down and peace has been declared.
In addition to taking the initiative in educating the international community about the dangers of cluster munitions, Lao PDR is continuing its excellent work with mine risk education on the home soil. The reason why Lao PDR has been able to reduce the number of UXO casualties from 302 in 2008 to 41 in 2017 is not only the result of rigorous clearance efforts or improved clearance technologies based on an evolving, more scientific survey technique, but also of reaching the masses through radio programmes and school lessons that raise awareness of the dangers of UXO. Such methods ensure that even as clearance efforts are progressing, people -- particularly children -- know how to live safely in the midst of UXO.
Education is also the answer to reducing the social stigma that many UXO victims suffer from. If UXO victims are to fully participate in Lao society, their presence needs to be normalised to both adults and children alike by frequent exposure in the media and other public domains.
The UXO issue has become even more concerning in light of the recent national tragedy of the floods in Attapeu province. At least 94% of the villages in Attapeu province are contaminated by UXO. As of today, UXO clearance teams found and destroyed more than 1,175 UXO in six flooded villages alone. The floods can now make the ordnance harder for clearance teams to find. Two clearance operators are working on the ground and providing logistical support; and fourteen four-wheel-drive vehicles have been deployed to support rescue and relief efforts. Needless to say, the situation with UXO contamination will have to be re-assessed at an appropriate time.
UNDP has always recognised UXO as one of the primary obstacles to the sustainable development of Laos and we will continue to support the Government in all its efforts to mitigate the negative effects of UXO, whether it be in the form of survey clearance, victim assistance or risk education. Tackling such a range of challenges caused by a single issue will certainly not be an easy task. However, the fact that Lao PDR is one of the few countries to achieve eligibility to graduate from Least Developed Country status proves that development is possible despite the difficult legacy of UXO.
On the 8th anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions entering into force, we can only hope that more countries will not have to grapple with that legacy in the future. It is a lofty goal, but the steadily increasing number of countries ratifying the treaty shows that it can be achieved. It is just going to require plenty of patience, persistence, widescale participation and above all, a sharp political will and leadership.
Just like clearing a mine field does.
This article was authored by Mr. Balasubramaniam Murali, Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP Lao PDR. Mr. Murali started his career in UNDP in 1997 and has been serving in Lao PDR since 2016.
Please read this article in Lao.