The Vietnam war ended in 1975. But now, more than thirty years later, the people of Lao are still caught in it's aftermath. From 1964 to 1973 the U.S. flew more than half a million bomb missions to block North Vietnamese troupes through Laos(1).
Cluster bombs - one type of bomb the U.S. dropped during its missions - release dozens of smaller sub-munitions. These weapons injure so many civilians because they spread widely across heavily populated areas. When the bombs fail to explode on impact - and 30% of them do - they can stay on the ground years after combat ends. Approximately 78 million remain today in Laos(1).
People who come into contact with these bombs suffer severely. Loss of limbs and disability are common. Because Laotians living in rural areas (where many of these unexploded bombs are) have Limited access to health care, or the care is of poor quality, many victims die unnecessarily or end up in a worse medical condition than they would have if they had better treatment. Cluster bombs also perpetuate and exacerbate poverty. All of a sudden an injured person's family has medical bills it can't pay. The energy spent to help an injured person recuperate leaves less time for other day-to-day life sustaining activities.
An Organization in Lao called COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) was established in 1997 to help those affected by unexploded bombs. COPE trains community members in rehabilitation services and provides prosthetic and mobility devices for those who can't afford them. Cope also aims to prevent accidents from happening by informing the community about the dangers of unexploded ordnances. Check out the website for stories and pictures about their amazing work. (http://www.copelaos.org/)
Over 15 countries have used cluster munitions, and 85 countries have stockpiled them. Laos is only one of more than two dozen countries that have been affected by the use of these munitions(2). But as important as organizations like COPE are, they can't address the problem alone. The problem is a world-wide concern.
The problem can be broken down into three main issues: preventing future use of cluster bombs, assisting survivors and cleaning up cluster bombs that remain on the ground. The Convention on Cluster Munitions - signed by 94 countries as of December 2008 - is an effort to find solutions to these three problems. (http://www.clusterconvention.org/)
This treaty prohibits the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions; provides a framework for assistance to survivors; and calls for clearance of contaminated areas within 10 years. If ratified, the instrument will create a stronger global intolerance towards the use and storage of cluster bombs.
The United States heavily bombed Laos during the Vietnam war (and thus contributed to the abundance of unexploded cluster bombs on the ground now) but still hasn't signed the treaty. 28 NATO member countries have signed. As a NATO member country, the US is out of step with most of its major military allies says Steve Goose, Arms Division director of Human Rights Watch. Russia, China and Israel are also major users of cluster bomb that haven't signed. There is hope, though. President Obama passed legislation on March 11, 2009 stating that cluster munitions can only be exported if they leave behind less than 1 percent of their sub-munitions as duds.
The true heroes are not the signatories of the convention but rather the organizations that brought states together around the issue in the first place. The Coalition on Cluster Munitions, composed of civil society organizations such as Handicap International and Human Rights Watch, spearheaded the development of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The Coalition encourages civil society to participate by writing letters or emails to their representatives in government, organizing public meetings, debates, exhibitions and other events to raise awareness of the problem. Their website is a great resource for how to get involved in the campaign to ban cluster bombs. And please do! http://stopclustermunitions.org/take-action/
1. Cluster Munitions Problem. http://www.uxolao.org/
2. Cluster Munitions Coalition - The Problem http://www.stopclustermunitions.org/the-problem/