Friday, July 13, 2012

Clinton Confronts a Legacy of the Vietnam War

Secretary of State Clinton is in Phnom Penh where she attended the just-concluded annual foreign ministers' meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  Earlier in the week, she became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos since John Foster Dulles visited in 1955.  In the interim, there was the Vietnam War.

Like Cambodia, Laos was a sideshow in the Vietnam War.  But that hardly means it was ignored.  In fact, on a per capita basis, there is no country in the world that has been bombed as much as Laos.  Because the Ho Chi Minh Trail passed through Laos and the Viet Cong used Laotian territory both as a refugee and as a source of supplies, the United States extended its massive bombing campaign to Laos.  According to testimony by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Scot Marciel before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2010, the United States dropped 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War--more than were dropped on Germany and Japan, combined, during World War II.  Many of the bombs were cluster munitions with failure rates as high as 30 percent.

Even now, an estimated 300 people per year die when unexploded ordnance (UXO) explodes--because they stepped on unexploded submunitions from a cluster bomb, because they were trying to recover the valuable scrap metal from unexploded bombs, because they stepped on landmines--in short, because they were going about the normal activities of daily life in Laos.

Secretary Clinton met a survivor during a stop at an artificial limb center in Laos.  Phongsavath Sonilya, who lost both forearms and his vision when a cluster bomb exploded three years ago, had a message for the secretary of state.  The nineteen-year-old suggested that more needs to be done to halt the use of cluster munitions like the ones that contaminate many places where the United States has made war:  Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

There is a Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), an international agreement that prohibits the use, manufacture, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster bombs.  It was adopted in May 2008 and entered into force on August 1, 2010.  Seventy-four states have ratified the CCM, binding themselves to eliminate this particular weapon and to aid those countries, like Laos, that have suffered so much from its use.  The United States is not a party to the CCM.  No one could make a better case for why the United States should ratify the agreement than Phongsavath Sonilya did when he met Secretary Clinton.