By Kalinga Seneviratne
U.S. President Barack Obama’s early September visit to Laos helped to focus attention on one of the most horrendous war crimes in history, the bombing of the small landlocked Southeast Asian country during the Indochina War in the 1960s and 1970s, and its massive human and development costs.
The Laotians made use of the visit of both Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for the ASEAN and East Asia Summits to launch their own Sustainable Development Goal 18 to reduce the impact of unexploded ordnance (UXO) on development and economic activities.
SDG 18 is the newest addition to a set of 17 globally agreed goals which form the core of a new sustainable development agenda that came into effect at the beginning of the year, according to press release from the United Nations in the Lao PDR. The Lao PDR, together with all other 192 UN member states, endorsed the SDGs at the General Assembly in New York in September 2015 and has since made inroads in incorporating them into national plans and policies.
Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Ban Ki-moon inaugurated Lao’s own national SDG on September 7 at a special side event during the Summit meetings. Speaking at the event, the UN Secretary-General noted that more than half of the casualties caused by UXO in Laos in recent years have been children, most often young boys.
“With SDG 18, we aim to put an end to this horrible trend, once and for all. The socio-economic impact of UXO contamination means that people lack confidence in the safety of their land, which in turn has negative impacts on the income of rural farmers and their families and inhibits the development of the whole country” said Ban Ki-Moon.
He added: “I welcome the government’s commitment to free its people from UXO, with a powerful tool like a national SDG which will make sure efforts are coordinated for full impact.”
Laos has the distinction of being one of the most heavily bombed nations in the world. From 1964 to 1973, the country suffered some of the heaviest aerial bombardment in world history.
In the nine years, more than 500,000 bombing missions, mainly by the U.S. Air Force, dropped more than two million tons of ordnance, or nearly one ton for every man, woman and child in the population at the time.
Most of these were anti-personnel cluster bomblets intended to explode on or shortly after impact, but the failure rate according to UN’s estimates, may have been as high as 30 percent. As a result, more than 40 years after the end of the war, UXOs still affects 15 of the 18 provinces.
The National UXO Socio- Economic Impact Survey conducted in 1996-97 found that 86 of the 133 districts in the country (or 25 percent of all villages) reported continued UXO contamination
An estimated 80 million cluster sub-munitions remain unexploded. UXO limits safe access to agricultural and land for development projects and makes construction of transport and power infrastructure, schools, hospitals and water supply facilities much more costly and dangerous. It is for this reason, that the Lao government assigns an own national Sustainable Development Goal, Goal 18.
“We see casualties predominantly in rural areas and among the poorest populations. That is the linkages to poverty,” explained Nils Christensen, Head of UXO and Poverty Unit at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Laos in an interview with IDN-INPS.
“When you do development in rural areas this is a challenge by itself. When farmers are working on the field there could be bombs underground so very direct risk to their livelihood and also development activities,” he added.
Ever since the end of the Indochina War in 1975, Laos has been struggling to clear the land of UXOs. Initially, affected farmers and communities did it themselves at great risk to their lives.
The support of international charities and specialized international NGOs came much later, because this war on Laos was known as the “secret war” of the Pentagon, kept hidden by the international media. Even most American people did not know of the war crimes committed by their government supposedly to stop Vietcong supply lines via Laos to Vietnam.
In 1996, the Government of Lao, with UNDP’s support, established a national operator to address the problem of remaining UXOs. This became the backbone of the country’s efforts to rid itself of these remnants of war. In the past 20 years, UXO Lao has cleared more than 300 square kilometers of land for safe use, destroyed more than 1.3 million UXO and made more than 11,000 visits to villages to teach communities about the risks of unexploded bombs.
“SDG 18 gives us a clear goal to work towards,” argues Chistensen, a Danish national. “We have tried to set some ambitious targets, for example we would like to reduce casualties to the minimum levels possible.”
He pointed out that there are casualties every year in Laos. “I believe this year more than 40 already … we want to work towards that to say there shouldn’t be any casualties,” he added.
As a first step in implementing SDG 18, the Lao government is planning to carry out a comprehensive national survey of UXO contamination, which will help to target clearance work in high-risk areas and reduce the number of casualties.
The challenge for UNDP and the Lao government is to prioritize the areas they need to work in, argues Christensen. “If we find out that contamination is very big near a village we must prioritize that before going to the mountains where nobody lives,” he explained. “Priority is where people live where they have their livelihood where contamination is a risk to human life, human activity.”
The UXO Sector, supported by the UNDP, adopted a new, evidence-based UXO survey approach in 2015, which has resulted in a considerable increase in the number of cluster munitions cleared per hectare of land; from fewer than 7 cluster munitions per hectare in 2014 to more than 22 cluster munitions per hectare in 2015.
The new survey approach entails consultation with communities to identify all known UXO in and around villages, followed by technical survey to establish the extent of each Confirmed Hazardous Area, which is then entered into the national database and prioritized for clearance.
Getting appropriate technology to work in a difficult terrain is the biggest challenge for the Lao UXO clearance projects argues Christensen. “We need to detect UXOs down to 25 cm diameter,” he noted. “We will need a variety of equipment, because it all depends on terrain, in certain areas soil is difficult for equipment.”
Laos has also been a leading advocate for the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international agreement which entered into force in 2010, obliging State Parties to clear contaminated areas, destroy stockpiles and provide assistance to victims of cluster munitions accidents.