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As cluster bomb ban takes effect, the view from Laos

The cluster bomb ban – officially known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions – comes into force today. Countries that have ratified the treaty must stop making cluster munitions, dispose of stockpiles, and clear contaminated areas.

By Jared FerrieCorrespondent / August 1, 2010

Vansoum Phim Mavong an employee of Mines Advistory Group, searches for unexploded munitions in a field in central Laos. The shells of 'bombies' a nickname for the tennis-ball-sized bomblets, litter fields all over Laos, the most-bombed country in the world per capita. A world-wide cluster bomb ban takes effect Sunday.

Jared Ferrie

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Khangphaniena Village, Laos

The young woman brushes her metal detector over coarse, dry grass in a field near a primary school. Against the sound of children playing, the machine beeps as she searches for unexploded bombs dropped by American aircraft four decades ago.

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Most of those were cluster bombs – shells that open midair scattering tennis-ball-sized "bombies," as they are known all over Laos. About 30 percent of them failed to explode upon impact, and instead remained buried in the earth. On average, one person a day is injured or killed in some part of the country by unexploded ordnance.

Cluster bombs affect about two dozen nations, from Afghanistan to Zambia. But it was Israel's use of the weapon in Lebanon in August 2006, causing more than 200 casualties over the following year, that spurred members of the international community to act.

On Aug. 1, the Convention on Cluster Munitions comes into force under international law. Countries that have ratified the treaty will be required to cease production of cluster munitions, dispose of stockpiles, and clear contaminated areas. The first gathering of the 106 member states will be held in the Laotian capital in November.

Why the US won't sign the treaty

Neither Israel nor the United States will attend. In fact, the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Israel are not signatories to the treaty. The US, among others, has argued that cluster bombs are an effective military tool that saves their soldiers' lives. The US has also argued that it's shifting to "smart" cluster bombs that self-destruct or deactivate, reducing the risk to civilians.

Laos, the most bombed country in the world per capita, strongly backs the treaty. Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance in a campaign kept hidden from Congress and the public. Since then, about 20,000 civilians have been maimed or killed by unexploded bombs, according to Legacies of War, a Washington-based group that raises awareness about America's "secret war" in Laos.

Clearing the fields of Laos

Ping Souvanton's brother was one of those victims. She now works for Mines Advisory Group, and leads the all-female team clearing this field outside the school in central Laos.

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