08 November 2010

Diplomats learn about scale of cluster bomb problem on visit to Xieng Khuang

Pink sandbags signal where unexploded cluster bomblets and other explosive remnants of war will be demolished at a clearance site in Xieng Khuang province, Lao PDR. Photo credit: Gemima Harvey/CMC.By Gemima HarveyXieng Khuang is a heavily bombed province in Laos, where an estimated 46 million cluster bomblets were used. At a clearance site in Pek district, pink sandbags marked crater sites of cleared weapons and deminers had placed markers to denote where newly discovered war remnants lay. A delegate was called on to trigger the first explosion. At the push of a button, dozens of bombies detonated, the explosion symbolising a legacy the Convention on Cluster Munitions seeks to dismantle.Ingunn Vatne, First Secretary at the Norwegian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, reflected on the diplomatic process that led to the Convention, which requires that countries clear cluster bomb-contaminated land within 10 years."The Oslo Process [highlighted] the unacceptable harm caused by cluster bombs," Vatne said. "Adopting the convention in 2008 was only the beginning, now we must ensure implementation and the First Meeting of States Parties being in Laos, the most heavily affected country, demonstrates realities in the field to help drive the process forward."Back at the Ton-Tai clearance site in Xieng Khuang’s Pek district, a team of 14 deminers are working to clear a site covering approximately 165,000 square metres. So far 12,550 square metres have been declared safe with about 200 cluster bomblets destroyed. The team uses metal detectors for surface clearance and a rectangle grid called an Ebinger to detect weapons up to two metres underground. When bombs are found, they are detonated either with a fuse or by an electrical charge.Seeing first-hand the painstaking work of deminers, looking at the pock-marked earth and feeling the shock of a blast even from a safe distance gives government delegates and diplomats a better sense of the reality of the cluster bomb problem and can be integral to making decisions.This fact was pointed out by Gen. Mecres Abraham Chinjala of the Malawi military, who says when the real damage is witnessed, responsible decisions are made."Policy-makers spend most of their time in offices and don’t see the real impact of these weapons and it’s when they get into the field and see for themselves what we have seen today that changes are made," Chinjala said. "People’s lives are at stake. Now is the time to work on prevention measures."