Will the Convention on Cluster Munitions help the Lao victims of American bombing?

Laos was as much a sideshow of the Vietnam War as was Cambodia, but in Laos no US ground forces ever engaged in combat. America supported some Lao factions and opposed other Lao forces. It did so by funding, training, advising and by continual aerial bombing from June 1964 until the truce between contesting factions in 1973. During these nine years it dropped over two million tons of bombs at a cost of US$2 million per day. Using non-contested currency adjustment, that is US$ 17 million/day in today’s money. Among those bombs were 288 million ‘bombies’, each one lethal up to 30 metres. Estimates suggest 70-86 million of these bombies, each the size of a pétanque (bocce) ball and often looking just like one, did not explode on hitting the ground. An unknown number of these UXO (unexploded ordnance) remained active. Lying in undergrowth or turned up by a plough, they continue to do the job for which a military mind designed them: wait for victims. Therein lies the major problem facing Laos today, a problem created over 37 years ago that will not go away as time goes by and enemies become friends.

Between 1975 and 1987, the major allies of the Lao PDR were the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Apart from an American Friends project to provide long-handled hoes to Lao, to reduce the loss of limbs and life inherent in using the traditional Lao short-handled hoe, and an American Mennonite project to design and provide tractors to explode UXO, there were no significant attempts during the Soviet period to clear land of the unexploded cluster munitions dropped by the US on Laos on presidential orders. At the time, the Soviet Union was busy with its own problem of containing US-supported Islamists in Afghanistan – by blanket use of cluster bombs. There were no foreign tourists to Laos during this period and very few signs in any language warning of UXO danger-in-waiting. There were casualties, but these often went unreported because there was rarely medical assistance available and no reason to make such reports.

Now the Soviet Union is no more, Laos has radically changed its economy, constitution and legal system and has befriended both the US and China. The US has removed Laos from its list of Marxist-Leninist states and opened full and preferential trade relations. China this year overtook Thailand as the major investor in Laos. Development in all sectors has been assisted by a number of countries that were not directly involved in the war, and by the USA to a limited extent, mostly through its UN commitments. Laos has yet to enjoy a visit by Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, but Hillary recently gave Laos one paragraph praising the joint search for American MIA in Laos (downed pilots) and linking that cooperation with the clearance of UXO. For America, Laos has gone from being a pariah-state to a country it can deal with. Laos is today one of the very few countries in the world that can say it has no enemies, only friends. It was among the first countries to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions and will host the inaugural meeting of signatories in November this year.

The Convention of Cluster Munitions:

  • came into effect on 1 August 2010. At that time it had been signed by 108 countries, including Laos, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and Australia, and not been signed by others, including the US, China and Russia. None of Laos’ 5 neighbours signed, although Cambodia is said to have travelled to Oslo and had pen in hand ready to sign, when somebody mentioned Thailand and Cambodia left the room.
  • bans use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions and binds states to assist victims.

  • The inaugural meeting of states party to the Convention will take place in Vientiane, Lao PDR, 9-12 November 2010


Given that current casualties from unexploded ordnance (UXO/bombies) run at an average of 300/year, 40% of whom survive but are maimed;

Given that UXO-contaminated (high risk) parts of Laos make up an area 4 times the size of Israel and Gaza combined (or the size of Florida State);

Given that clearance of high-risk areas would take many years and many billions of dollars;

Given that only one organisation, COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise), provides artificial limbs for casualties, but does not have enough funding to begin to meet current needs;

Given that not one casualty has received any compensation during the 37 years since the last American bomb was dropped on Laos;

Given that estimates to clear land of the remaining 75-86 million pieces of UXO range from UNDP’s 16 years (for high-risk areas) to 2,752 years (all areas presuming current clearance rates are maintained. The maths: 288 million bombies dropped, of which 86 million didn’t explode; 0.5 million cleared in 16 years; 86 million/0.5 = 172; 172 x 16 years = 2,752 years);

Given that Laos is among the world’s Least Developed Countries and is recognised as having one of the poorest medical capacities in the world;

Given that Vietnam and Cambodia, which share the legacy of problems related to American bombing during the Second Indochina War, did not sign the Convention; and

Given that the major economic and military powers in the world did not sign the Convention;

… will this Convention and the November meeting make a scrap of difference to the estimated 12,000 Lao casualties currently still alive and in need of help?

Without the participation of the major economic and military powers in the world today, the Convention is unlikely to achieve much and, if the November meeting is handled poorly and appears to be anti-American, it could create delays in obtaining the much-needed increase in funds to assist UXO-victims and clear UXO-contaminated areas. On the other hand, with good presentation of data and good PR stressing cooperation rather than condemnation, the November meeting could kick off a main-stream information campaign within America, involving Americans, particularly those with links to Laos, and including lobby groups. The November meeting should set out the case for a significant increase in funding of humanitarian assistance to Laos. The problem of UXO cannot be considered separately from other problems. A holistic viewpoint is required: taking in all aspects of contemporary Laos is not only desirable but essential. This meeting could be the first or it could be the last. There will not be infinite chances to get the formula right. If Laos expects US assistance, it must be prepared to do its part. And … it is best not to mention the war.

Not mention the war? That’s right. America was never at war with Laos. There is not a hope in hell of the US paying compensation for the results of the US assisting one set of Lao against another set of Lao. Carpet bombing by the US military resulted in an unknown number killed by bombs that exploded and an estimated 50,000 dead and maimed by UXO (a non-contested estimate and perhaps conservative). This estimate of 50,000 UXO-casualties covers 44 years: 1964-2008. No doubt most of these 50,000 were non-combatants, as were all casualties since 1973. The figure of 50,000 pales when considered against the landmark millions deliberately killed in the Holocaust, atomic bombings, and mass persecutions, including the mass-murder of Cambodians by Cambodians, often carried out by hand-hoe, neither a conventional weapon of mass-destruction nor the subject of any international Convention.

To talk now of the war would raise the question of responsibility and that might lead to demand for compensation.

Why not demand compensation? After all, we have the example this year of a British oil company agreeing to pay compensation of US$20 billion to Americans economically-affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. By comparison, US assistance to Laos to counter the consequences of UXO averages US$2.3 million/year over the past 15 years. With $20 billion instead of $20 million, a real start could be made to help the victims. And the longer we wait, the more victims there will be.

If compensation-claims are considered a morally-justified way of getting America to pay to resolve the UXO problem, which court would hear the case? Not the Hague, because America does not cooperate with that court when Americans are involved. It would have to be a court in America or in the Lao PDR. The Lao PDR came into being two years after the last bomb was dropped on Laos, and after the various factions in the civil war agreed to terms of a truce that ended hostilities without either side claiming compensation from the other. A Lao casualty of UXO could theoreticallysue for compensation on an individual basis. Who would s/he sue and for what? Presumably Richard Nixon and presumably for attempted murder. Such theatre would provide some interesting media flashbacks and make a good movie. But consider the comparatively clear-cut case of the Bhopal disaster in India, where a US company was responsible for thousands of deaths and enormous suffering: justice took 26 years to come to a decision that nobody felt satisfied with and in 2010 is still being sent back for review. The Indian government supported the Bhopal plaintiffs and the case was heard in an Indian court. Can Lao farmers wait another 26 years? Thirty-seven years has produced, perhaps, a Convention signed by junior countries; would another 26 years be worth the wait? We can be sure only that embarking on a quest for compensation of victims would result in extraordinary delays, during which volunteered humanitarian help might be placed on hold.

There are alternatives to legislated compensation. They do not require apologies or confrontation and perhaps better suit the spirit of humanitarian cooperation for which many of the Convention signatories pride themselves.

Questions of responsibility are less important to victims than getting rapid help as soon as possible after an accident involving a UXO. At 300 UXO-casualties/year, Lao farmers face much greater risk of death or maiming than American soldiers active in a contemporary theatre of war. But the current poverty of medical services in Laos means that any accident victim, including the many casualties of road accidents, have little chance of getting appropriate emergency care and reaching one of the five centres in Laos where COPE can fit artificial limbs. If they are among the ‘lucky’ few who get artificial limbs, they return to the situation of medical-poverty in their rural village, and care by relatives. Clearly a lot more is involved in resolving the UXO-contamination problem than simply saying: ‘It’s an American problem; let America resolve it’. The November meeting has the chance to set out objectives for real change in Laos in terms of response to accidents, however caused, and to raise significantly the level of health care throughout the country, which ranks among the worst in the world. No one, Americans included, denies that there is a very significant problem posed by leftover cluster munitions in Laos; the correct tactic is surely to involve everybody in planning and funding a solution. If the meeting misses the chance to invite America in on plans to resolve the problem, the real losers will be the disabled who need assistance now, the next generation of farmers, who need productive land they can work without fear, and the world, which needs forests in which eco-tourists can have a good time within nature with a fair chance of walking out on their own legs.

If America does not help, who will and to what extent? Currently an unknown proportion of casualties receive assistance and UXO-clearing is largely limited to areas nominated by farmers who happen to find UXO before UXO finds them. There is talk of clearing the UXO-plague to free land for productive development and eco-tourism. As yet there is no universal and systematic plan to make the ground beneath our feet safe on which to plant, play and produce. Such a plan will need big money. Alienate the money needed to resolve the problem caused by unexploded cluster munitions and what good is a Convention banning cluster munitions?

The largest economies in the world must help one of the smallest to clear this fundamental man-made problem, just as they help poor countries faced with the pain and costs of natural disasters. How can this best be achieved: shame and blame or humanitarian appeal? America and Laos have slowly but surely removed all obstacles to a good friendship. Putting a new obstacle between the two friends now could induce alienation rather than evoke cooperation.

How best to convince the United States that a friend in need is a friend in deed? There is no need to revisit and rewrite the war, but every need to learn that current problems caused by past conflict are resolved best by dialogue and peaceful cooperation – and financial help. For Lao to stand on their feet, they must have feet to stand on.

Robert Cooper completed his PhD in the 1970s on Hmong settlement and economy in Laos and Thailand. After lecturing in Southeast Asian Anthropology at Singapore University, he served with UNHCR for 19 years and the British Trade Office to Laos (4 years). He still lives in Laos, as Director of Publications of Lao Insight Books and owner/director of The Bookshop on Heng Boun Road in central Vientiane. Robert’s books include The Hmong, Resource Scarcity and the Hmong Response, Laos Fact Book, The Lao, Culture Shock titles on Laos and Thailand, Thailand: Beyond the Fringe and books on business and culture.