If you were asked to guess which country has suffered the heaviest bombing during wartime, you might guess, Germany or Japan. Few would guess Lao PDR.
Despite it never officially being part of the Indo-China war and declaring its neutrality, an estimated two million tons of bombs were dropped on the country between 1964 and 1973, which equated to about a ton for every woman, man and child living in Lao PDR at the time. Decades later, one-third of these bombs remain unexploded, continuing to threaten the lives of Laotians. Experts estimate that there are about 80 million Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), cluster munitions that failed to detonate on initial impact, littered across the Laotian countryside. One in four Laotian villages are exposed to the risks from UXOs, with some provinces being more affected than others.
Lao PDR has since been tackling the issue. A global success in international humanitarian law has been the establishment of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), to which the government of the Lao PDR played a central role in its successful negotiation. Upon signing the CCM in 2008, Lao PDR committed itself to ensuring the clearance and destruction of all cluster munitions, with the aim now that this will be done by 2020. That deadline is fast approaching, and Lao PDR is nowhere near clearing the egregious levels of remaining UXO. A request for an extension on to 2025 was agreed in September 2019, it must be asked what will Lao PDR and the international community do differently in the next 5 years to overcome this issue and also meet the 2030 target of SDG 18 Lives safe from UXO? What will happen if the problem is not fully addressed and no donors remain?
Today UXO Lao is accompanied by several other operators and international organisations working to clear the UXOs. While this is encouraging, there is an urgent need for the standardization of practices and procedures, as well as coordination within the sector. As a result, the National Regulatory Authority for the UXO/Mine Action Sector was established by the government in 2005 and tasked with this coordination and monitoring role.
Recognizing the importance of government ownership and participation, UNDP has provided considerable support to both UXO Lao and the NRA since their inception. This support has taken the form of institutional strengthening. Technical advisors for financial issues and support staff for monitoring, reporting and planning has been provided at different levels. Advice and guidance has also been given for the integration of UXO into national strategies and policies, so that UXO is discussed in tandem with sustainable development. As a result, the adoption of the Lao-specific Sustainable Develop Goal (SDGs) 18, “Lives Safe from UXO”, was launched in 2016 by both the Prime Minister of Lao PDR and the UN Secretary General at the time. This reflects a national commitment to reduce the problem of UXO and ensure the safety of its citizens.
It is evident that national development and security cannot be achieved without UXO clearance. Laotians must be wary of where they walk, play, cook, or build especially in rural areas. In the rural areas where UXO contamination is prevalent, it hinders farmers from cultivating their fields for fear of plowing into UXOs to grow food for their families, and as a result are unable to escape the poverty trap. Sometimes children mistake them for toys, with tragic outcomes. By leading its own UXO clearance projects, Lao PDR has developed expertise that it now shares with countries facing similar problems. UXO demining operations also present tremendous opportunities for youth and women empowerment. All female demining teams represent a powerful narrative of how despite facing gender stereotypes women can lead challenging projects.
As of today, however, neither UXO Lao nor its partners have the means or time to clear all the UXOs.
One long-term solution has been suggested to Lao PDR by the Korean government: train and equip a humanitarian demining teams of the Lao People’s Army so that they can continue clearance efforts when there are no other operators to do so. This was welcomed by the Lao government, with the project being launched in 2015. So far, UNDP and KOICA have trained, equipped and funded the operations of five humanitarian army teams. In the next phase of their project, which started this year, two additional teams will be supported. The long-term sustainability of this project? The team members are government staff and the salaries of the teams are paid for by the Lao government.
Currently, there are no other donors funding these humanitarian teams, but with their continued success and that of UXO Lao, it is hoped that other donors will start to realise the immense significance of support to these national capacities.
This is, however, not the only long-term solution that can have a great impact. Other solutions include the continued work being done by International Non-Governmental Organizations in survey and clearance, as well as educating citizens, especially children, to the danger of UXOs. While we cannot get rid of all UXOs fast enough, we can get rid of the blissful ignorance about the dangers of UXOs. The number of UXO victims has fallen from 302 in 2008 to 24 in 2018, which represents an all-time low. This decline can be attributed to the widespread UXO Risk Education activities being conducted across contaminated provinces.
By implementing these long-term projects and solutions, Lao PDR has not only reduced its UXO casualty rates, but is also presenting sustainable solutions to ensuring that its international obligations are met. With millions of munitions still unexploded, the fight against UXO is arduous and long but is one with that is being fought with great tenacity, determination and innovative approaches under the stewardship of the Government of the Lao PDR and with support from the International community.
Ricarda Rieger, Resident Representative, Lao PDR, United Nations Development Programme
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.