Renewing U.S. Commitment to End the UXO Crisis in Laos

By Brett Dakin

Unexploded cluster munitions, such as these in northern Savannakhet, remain a deadly hazard to villagers throughout Lao. Source: Prince Roy's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

[ Editor’s note: This post is the first in a two part series on legacy issues in the U.S.-Laos relationship given Secretary Clinton’s historic visit prior to the 2012 ASEAN Regional Forum.]

This week Secretary Clinton touches down in Vientiane, Laos – the first Secretary of State to visit the country in 57 years, since John Foster Dulles in 1955.  Clinton’s visit may be brief, but it represents the best opportunity since the end of the Vietnam War to finally bring one of that conflict’s deadliest legacies to an honorable conclusion, while at the same time strengthening the goals of the Lower Mekong Initiative.

Most Americans don’t know it, but an estimated one third of Laos is still littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) from over 40 years ago, making land unavailable for food production or development.  These bombs are left over from America’s “Secret War” in Laos, hidden from the public and never authorized by Congress, to stem communist ground incursions and interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.

Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day on a country the size of Minnesota.  One ton of bombs was dropped for every man, woman, and child in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.  While the campaign ended in 1973, many of these deadly bombs remained behind—20,000 people have been killed or maimed in Laos by UXO since the end of the war.

Secretary Clinton’s visit to Laos is an excellent opportunity to reinforce the United States’ commitment to clean up these bombs, reaffirming statements made during the recent Fourth U.S.-Laos Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue and Under Secretary Maria Otero’s own historic visit to Laos in June.  While the U.S. government has supported bomb clearance for nearly two decades at modest levels, past funding has not come close to matching the enormity of the problem: to date, only 1% of contaminated land has been cleared.  Victim assistance providers are underfunded and scores of Lao, many of them children, continue to be injured or killed every year.

While the Lower Mekong Initiative, created by Secretary Clinton to boost the capacity of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos in areas like health, environment, education, and infrastructure, lies at the heart of the effort to improve relations between the U.S. and ASEAN, UXO clearance is really a prerequisite for the State Department’s development goals in Laos.  For example, UXO clearance will be required for true food security in Laos.  According to a joint UNDP-Lao 2008 report, at least 200,000 additional hectares of land could be made available for rice production if cleared of UXO.  The UNDP has even made UXO clearance a Ninth Millennium Development Goal specific to Laos.  According to the UNDP, “The presence of such UXO negatively affects the socioeconomic development of the country, preventing access to agricultural land and increasing the costs, through land clearance, of all development projects, including building schools and roads.”

The critical importance of significant and sustained U.S. funding for UXO clearance in Laos has been widely recognized.  In 2010, the State Department Office of the Inspector General called the UXO clearance program a highly successful example of U.S. activities in Laos, but warned that it is endangered by inconsistent funding and that “to risk losing such gains would be a poor choice at this moment in the improving U.S.-Lao dialogue.”  In 2011, all six former U.S. Ambassadors to Laos called upon Secretary Clinton to allocate $10 million per year, over 10 years, “to strengthen and secure the Lao UXO sector’s capacity and bring its already effective programs to scale.”  And in the FY 2012 budget omnibus report, Congress specifically recognized the responsibility of the U.S. to prioritize the “clearance of unexploded ordnance in areas where such ordnance was caused by the United States,” and appropriated $9 million for UXO programs in Laos.  Draft Senate appropriations report language for FY 2013 recommends a record $10 million—a great accomplishment, but hardly reliable given the current fiscal climate.

Now is the time for Secretary Clinton to make a commitment by the U.S. to provide at least $10 million per year, over 10 years, to clear Laos of U.S. bombs.  With this pledge, Clinton has the opportunity to bring to an end a 40-year-old legacy of war, leaving a new legacy of peace and economic growth and strengthening ties with an important ASEAN partner.

Brett Dakin is Chair of Legacies of War, a Washington-based organization advocating for the clearance of unexploded bombs in Laos.  Brett is also the author of Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos (Asia Books) which Rough Guides calls “a must for anyone looking to understand Laos today,” and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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