President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Laos this week has put a spotlight on the United States’ role in the use of cluster bombs, a particularly devastating weapon known for its indiscriminate harm, and comes at a time when there have been increased calls for the U.S. to join an international ban on the weapon.
Cluster bombs scatter multiple sub-munitions over a wide area, which often fail to explode upon impact and become de facto landmines, according to Human Rights Watch. As is the case in Laos, these unexploded munitions often continue to cause devastation even decades after conflict ends.
Cluster bombs have been banned by an international treaty signed by 119 countries, although the U.S. has so far refused to sign, saying that they “have demonstrated military utility [and] their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk,” according to a statement on the Department of State website.
President Obama promised $90 million to help clean up the unexploded bombs dropped by the U.S. on Laos during the Vietnam War yesterday, when he became the first U.S. sitting president to visit Laos.
Obama said that the U.S. has a “moral obligation” to help the people of Laos after American forces littered the Laotian countryside with unexplopded ordnances that continue to kill or maim locals.
“Many of the bombs that were dropped were never exploded. Over the years thousands of Laotians have been killed or injured. Farmers tending their fields, children playing,” Obama said in an address to the Laotian people today. “The wounds, a missing leg or arm, last a lifetime. That’s why as president I have dramatically increased our funding to help remove these unexploded bombs.”
Phongsavath Manithong, 24, who now goes by his adopted Western name Peterkim, is one of those victims. Manithong was 16 years old when he picked up an unexploded ordnance while walking home from school with his friends in a village in central Laos, about four hours from the capital.
“One of my friends found a cluster bomb but he didn’t know what it was, so he gave it to me and I tried to open it. I played with it. I just wanted to see what it was,” Manithong told ABC News today, “and then it exploded it. It exploded very quickly. I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t see it.”
Manithong said his next memory was of waking up in a hospital. “I couldn’t see anything, I felt like I was on fire,” he said.
Manithong lost both of his arms and his eyesight after the accident. He has since devoted most of his life since to advocating for the banning of cluster bombs, and educating children in the countryside not to touch or play with any unexploded munitions they may find.
“I am really happy that the first U.S. president, Obama, is coming and visiting our country,” Manithong said. “I would like to tell him that we are not angry because it is not his mistake, but we need help.”
He added: “I am very happy that the American government is generously supporting our country to clean up the UXO [unexploded ordnances]. But I want to tell him that there are many thousands of victims. We need support more than they are doing right now.”
In his address to the Laotian people, President Obama looked forward, saying, “Given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal, and even as we continue to deal with the past, our new partnership is focused on the future.”
Human Rights Watch said earlier this year that U.S.-made cluster bombs were being used near civilian areas in Yemen by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.
Earlier this summer, the House of Representatives also voted against an amendment that would have blocked the transfer of American-made cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia, with one representative arguing that a ban would “stigmatize cluster munitions.”
Source: ABC News