Binding up old Wounds in Laos

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Laos last week was a historic event: for the first time in over five decades, a Secretary of State visited the communist nation in Southeast Asia. While in the country, Clinton met with the Laotian President and Prime Minister in Vientiane as part of a broader effort to engage ASEAN nations.

U.S.-Lao relations can best be described as tepid, tracing their strain back to the Cold War Era. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force conducted secret bombing campaigns in Laos to destroy North Vietnamese supply routes and bases. Over a nine-year period between 1964 to 1973, more than 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, an explosive payload that was greater than the bombings of Germany and Japan combined during the Second World War.

Small and difficult to find, cluster bombs pose a substantial threat to civilians long after hostilities cease.

The bombings of Laos took countless lives, but the effects still linger to this day. Cluster munitions–a bomb that breaks apart into hundreds of smaller bomblets before impact–were a weapon of choice to target areas with dense jungle growth. The problem with these cluster bombs is that many of them fail to detonate on impact: of the 260 million bomblets dropped in Laos, an estimated 30% did not explode. These unexploded ordinances (UXOs) pose a significant danger to civilians. Over half of the UXO accidents in Laos involve unsuspecting children that mistake the bomblets for toys; many others involve the clearing of land for agriculture and the collection of the bomblets for scrap metal. The Red Cross estimated that at least 10,000 civilians have died from UXO since the end of the war.

Contamination from UXO has had a large developmental cost in Laos. Today, about 25% of Lao villages suffer from some degree of contamination, with about 50% of all arable land contaminated as well. A recent study by the UN Development Program observed:

UXO/mine action is the absolute pre-condition for the socio-economic development of Lao PDR…  [Because of UXO,] economic opportunities in tourism, hydroelectric power, mining, forestry and many other areas of activity considered main engines of growth for the Lao PDR are restricted, complicated and made more expensive.

In her recent meeting with Laotian leaders, Mrs. Clinton has considered making a $100 million pledge to support bomb-clearing efforts over a next 10 years, a slight increase from the current $9 million the U.S. government allocates annually. Since 1993, the U.S. government, corporations, and private foundations have spent $39.5 million on UXO efforts. More resources are needed, but the groups have been able to make remarkable progress with what they have been given.

Secretary of State Clinton speaking with a Laotian boy, a victim of UXO.

Public-private partnerships have played a large role in the removal of UXO in Laos. The Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement collaborates with many private charities and NGOs, including: Clear Path International, HALO Trust, Handicap International, Humpty Dumpty Institute, Legacies of War, QSI Global, Spirit of Soccer, and World Education. These groups conduct a diverse range of operations such as UXO clearance, awareness campaigns, and rehabilitation for victims. By joining forces with civil society and the private sector, the U.S. has been able to maximize the leverage and effectiveness of its developmental assistance.

The work of these groups has produced tangible results. Up until 2008, there were about 300 UXO deaths or injuries per year in Laos. In 2009 and 2010 (most recent data available), reports found that the casualties decreased to 117 per year, a significant drop in large part due to UXO removal and better UXO education in rural populations.

Despite the progress, much remains to be done. Less than 1% of the 80 million unexploded bomblets have been cleared, and the possibility of Laotians accidentally encountering UXO is an ever-present danger. On the positive side, it seems that the current structure that combines public and private sectors provides a useful model for navigating what lies ahead.

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