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Aid Groups in Asia Hail Start of New Cluster Munitions Treaty

Cluster ban advocate Thoummy Silamphan

Cluster ban advocate Thoummy Silamphan

The new international convention banning the use and production of cluster munitions takes effect on Sunday, with more than 30 countries having ratified the treaty. The Convention on Cluster Munitions is seen as a major step in disarmament, even as unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War 40 years ago still extracts a deadly toll in southeast Asia, especially Laos.

Laotian Thoummy Silamphan was just eight years old in 1996 when, while digging for bamboo shoots near his home in Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos, he struck a cluster bomb. "I was unconscious when the villages found me," he said. "My parents were very upset. I was sent to the provincial hospital. I woke up the next day to find I had lost my left hand."

Thoummy, now a young man, advocates for a ban on cluster munitions. His call comes as an international convention banning the use, manufacture, storing and transfer of cluster munitions takes effect on August 1. More than 30 countries have signed onto the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including Britain, France, Germany, Laos, New Zealand and Mexico.

But several nations marked as major producers and users of cluster bombs - namely Brazil, China, India, Israel, Russia, Pakistan and the United States - have yet to enter into negotiations on the convention.

The cluster munitions' ban began with talks in Oslo Norway in 2007, after the widespread use of the bombs by Israel during its conflict with Lebanon in 2006.

Cluster bombs contain hundreds of smaller explosives, or submunitions, that detonate across a wide area. The submunitions that fail to explode on impact can then act as landmines, posing a threat to civilian populations long after a conflict is over.

Saleumxay Kommasith, a director general of the Department of International Organizations in the Lao Foreign Ministry, says the Oslo process gave momentum to a campaign by the international community.

"One of the things that we are celebrating is the success of the Oslo process, because it is a joint effort by the international community to ban cluster munitions because of the impact it has imposed on civilian people. It has gathered a lot of support, overwhelming support from the international community," he said.

According to the Laotian government, during the Vietnam War four decades ago, an estimated 80 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos by the U.S. military failed to explode on contact.

Today, Laos remains one of the world's most heavily contaminated areas with unexploded ordinance. Each year, they injure or kill some 300 people.

But the international community, including the United States, several European countries, Japan and Australia, are spending millions of dollars on the slow task of demining in Laos. The process may take decades to complete.

Lou Maresca

Lou Maresca

Lou Maresca, a legal advisor to the International Committee for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) says the bombs' ongoing toll on people helped prompt the international community to see the convention come into force.

"Cluster munitions have had a tremendous impact on civilians - both in this region but also on other regions," he said. "They've caused a tremendous amount of suffering both at the time that they have been used as well as, in some cases, for decades long after the conflict is over. That is what has inspired the ICRC, governments and civil society to work together to develop this important convention."

The next step for the convention and its advocates is to convince more countries to sign onto the ban in November, when the convention's signatories and delegates from other nations will meet for a conference in the Laos capital, Vientiane.