Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A moral duty to support the ban on cluster bombs

As Laos hosts an international meeting to raise awareness of the danger of these weapons, Thailand owes it to its neighbour to join the campaign against them

A major international meeting on cluster bombs is being held in Laos this week. During the Indochina War, Laos was a dumping ground for these highly destructive weapons. US bombing missions launched from Thailand and headed for Vietnam tried to kill two birds with one stone - by also dropping their loads on upper Laos, where communist forces were positioned.

What saved the Lao communists from being bombed back to the stone age was, ironically, a stone-age reaction to the American offensive. Soldiers and local residents hid inside caves that are now being touted as tourist attractions.

The US, as part of its so-called "secret war" in Laos, dropped millions of tonnes of ordnance on the country's eastern and northern provinces. This was done in an effort to destroy the jungle bases of the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces and disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the main logistical passage from North to South Vietnam during the Indochina War in the 1960s and 1970s.

In terms of cluster munitions, Laos remains the world's most heavily contaminated country, thus making it the most appropriate place to hold this gathering of concerned nations and delegates. The first ever meeting of states that are party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions will attempt to map out an action plan to eliminate the scourge of these weapons.

The convention has been signed by 108 countries and ratified by more than 40. It is similar to the global treaty banning land-mines, which came into force in the late 1990s and has helped to dramatically reduce the use of these terrible weapons of war.

The main producers and stockpilers of cluster bombs, including the United States, China, Russia, Israel, India and Pakistan, have all refused to sign the convention.
Cluster bombs consist of containers and sub-munitions. Launched from the ground or dropped from the air, the containers open and disperse smaller bombs indiscriminately over a wide area. Many fail to explode on impact but remain dangerous - like land-mines - for years or decades. Hundreds of people still fall victim to them every year, especially in Laos and other places in Southeast Asia
Supporters of the convention say there are several strong reasons why Thailand should also sign. The first would be as an act of solidarity with neighbouring Laos, and the fact this country owes a huge moral debt to the Lao people. That's because of Thailand's hand in the indiscriminate bombing of Laos; the cluster bombs that still litter the country were dropped from US planes that took off from airbases in Thailand in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The second reason is that it would encourage neighbouring countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam, which have also held back from signing the convention, to follow Thailand's lead.

The third reason is the more countries that sign and ratify the convention, the more lives will be saved. The more countries that sign, the quicker the clean-up of contaminated land and the faster the assistance to victims. We owe it to our neighbours to do the right thing.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Convention on Cluster Munitions is an important addition to international humanitarian law. It establishes new rules to ensure that cluster munitions are no longer used and that the existing humanitarian problems associated with these weapons are addressed. Importantly, the convention has specific provisions that aim to meet the needs of victims and affected communities,.

Too few former users, producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions have joined the convention, and some 73 countries still continue to stockpile the explosives. We hope that the meeting in Laos this week will go a long way toward convincing them to abandon these weapons and join the ongoing campaign to eradicate them for good. The Nation, Bangkok

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