Secretary of State visits Laos

Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Laos this week, the precursor to one by President Obama this Autumn, was widely trailed, as part of US moves to provide more help to Laos in addressing issues associated with unexploded ordnance (UXO).

As one of a small number of humanitarian mine clearance organisations working in Laos, The HALO Trust welcomes the increased visibility afforded by the Secretary of State’s visit.

Heavy aerial bombardment by the US Air Force during the Second Indochina War from 1963 – 1974 rendered Laos the most bombed country per capita in the world. Millions of cluster bomblets were dropped as part of the bombing campaign and many failed to explode. They have been hidden for decades and have killed an estimated 20,000 people in Laos.

The US is HALO’s largest donor in Laos. Its funding has helped HALO employ over 250 local people to identify hazardous areas and clear cluster munitions in Savannakhet Province, the most UXO impacted and impoverished region in Laos. Villagers in Savannakhet Province, are almost entirely dependent on rice cultivation but UXO contamination across their paddy fields makes them understandably reluctant to cultivate their land. This hampers their ability to grow food and build a surplus, the first step in moving away from subsistence farming and the foundation of grass roots development.

To date we have cleared over 2,000,000m2 of land and destroyed over 18,000 items of unexploded ordnance, improving the lives of over 7,000 local people, but there is a great deal more to do.

Nick Torbet, Programme Manager, HALO Laos said:

The people of Laos have lived with the legacy of war for more than 40 years. The US has consistently funded our work since we started in Laos three years ago but we are encouraged to see the Obama administration putting this war-ravaged country so firmly on the radar for increased support.
What Laos needs most is a clear understanding of the scale of the problem. This can only be achieved with a National Baseline Survey to map the hazardous areas so we are working with other NGOs in the sector to make the case. We very much hope this week’s visit and subsequent discussions will seize the opportunity to enable this crucial survey. Without it, the people of Laos may have to live with the impact of cluster munitions for generations to come.

Cluster bombs are designed as anti-personnel, anti-armour weapons but the majority of cluster bomb victims are civilians, many of them children, who mistake them for something to play with. Cluster bombs are particularly sinister because each one contains hundreds of ‘bomblets’. A fully functioning cluster munition will split open before impact, scattering hundreds of bomblets over a wide area.