Cambodia Passes Up Chance to Ratify Cluster Bomb Convention

[This story was originally published July 24, 2010]

Stung Trang district, Kompong Cham province – Hen Soeun bears none of the visible wounds typical of the victim of an explosion, not the severed limbs or mangled flesh. But her scars are as real as those of the more than 60,000 Cambodians killed or injured since the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge by the millions of unexploded shells, rockets, bombs and landmines that still litter this land.

A year ago, Ms Soeun’s husband was scouring a cashew field with their teenage son on the outskirts of Srob village, in the rural north of Kompong Cham province, when they came across a rusting steel ball. The family made most of its living salvaging and selling scrap metal.

Not sure what to make of the find, or thinking it too old to pose any danger, he tapped at the ball with his hoe for a better look. In an instant, Ms Soeun’s husband was dead and their son lay next to him unconscious, bleeding from the shrapnel lodged in his chest and hip.

The size of a tennis ball, the metal orb was a BLU 24, one of the most common cluster bombs the US dropped on Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s. Like many of the bomblets, it failed to detonate on impact and had lain in wait ever since.

“When I think about my husband I am very angry with the people who dropped the bomb, but I don’t know what to do,” said Ms Soeun, who now struggles to feed five children on her own. “If they didn’t drop this bomb I think my husband would not have died.”

On Aug 1, one week and a day from Saturday, the UN-sponsored Convention on Cluster Munitions will take effect. Three years in the making, it will ban the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions in the 30 countries that had ratified it by January. They will have to destroy their stockpiles of cluster munitions in eight years and clear any land of unexploded cluster bombs in 10.

Cambodia will not be among them.

Despite consistently promising to join the convention, which opened for signing in late 2008, Cambodian government officials still say they need more time to study its implications for national defense.

Convention campaigners say Cambodia has both a moral and practical obligation to sign as one of the most heavily cluster-bombed countries in the world. They say foreign aid for clearing bombsites and assisting victims, already short of what the country needs and slowly wearing down under the strain of donor fatigue, could suffer while it waits.

First used by the Soviets and Germans during World War II, cluster munitions have gained a reputation for killing indiscriminately. By scattering hundreds of bomblets across broad tracts, the bombs and rockets are highly effective at destroying armored vehicles and enemy troops.

They also forgo precision by design. They are known for failing to explode. While official failure rates for most types of cluster munitions used by the US in Vietnam and Cambodia ranged from 5 to 10 percent, according to Handicap International, tests of the BLU 26, another of the more common cluster bombs dropped on Cambodia, would see the bomblets fail to detonate one in four times. In the field, according to Handicap, failure rates may even have reached 50 percent.

Of the 26 million cluster bomblets the US dropped on Cambodia between 1969 and 1973 as it pursued Vietnamese communist troops deploying ever farther inside Cambodian territory, Handicap International estimates that anywhere from 1.3 million to 7.8 million failed to explode on impact. The Cambodian Mine Action Center sets the figure at 5.7 million.

No one knows even vaguely how much land those bomblets cover. Even the 649 square km that reportedly remain contaminated by landmines, the cause celebre among the explosive remnants of Cambodia’s old wars, is an estimate. A survey of the entire country is not due until 2012.

But some sense of cluster bombing contamination can still be had from a map on the wall of Cheng Rady’s office in Kompong Cham City.

A serious and deliberate man in a baby blue shirt and starched brown pants, the standard uniform of a CMAC employee, Mr Rady is deputy manager of the center’s demining unit for the region.

The map on his wall is courtesy of the US government. With tiny pink dots, it pinpoints every recorded US cluster munitions strike on Cambodia. They start like a bad rash in the east, along the country’s border with Vietnam, and taper off in scattered pockets toward the west.

Mr Rady and his 200-plus staff use the map to help guide their work. While useful, he said they have found it to be accurate less than half the time. Many of the cluster munitions they find get called in by villagers who come across the bomblets while herding cattle and plowing their fields. Sometimes they are not so lucky. Children can find the bomblets attractive.

“If the people are former soldiers, they know,” Mr Rady said. “But if they are children they think it is a ball, a metal ball, and they play with it.”

Their damage done, a small collection of spent bomblets now sits in a lonely glass cabinet by his office collecting dust.

On a recent day responding to reports of unexploded ordnance around the city, Mr Rady pointed past some low-lying hills about a kilometer off.

Last year, a clearance team spent weeks there picking BLU 26 bomblets out of the soft soil around a farming village. But with only nine of 30 hectares cleared, the team was called away to another province.

“Our teams cannot respond to all the tasks, so we have to select,” said Mr Rady, hopeful that some day they can return to finish what they left off.

Across Cambodia, year-to-year casualty rates from mines and unexploded ordnance, or UXO, have steadily tumbled since 1996, from more than 4,000 that year to 243 by 2009. Since the government in 1998 started breaking down casualties from UXOs, cluster bombs specifically have killed or injured 180 people through May.

Unlike overall figures, though, year-to-year numbers for cluster bomb casualties have not budged. “The number of casualties from mines has fallen, but casualties from…cluster bombs appear stable,” said Chhiv Lim, project manager for the Cambodian Mine Victim Information System. And as development drives Cambodians inexorably east, away from the country’s fertile center and into the little pink dots on Mr Rady’s map, that may not change soon.

Enter CMAC’s Battlefield Area Clearance project. Managed and monitored by Handicap International Belgium with funds from the Spanish government, CMAC has since February stepped up active UXO clearance in Kompong Cham, Kratie and Svay Rieng—three of Cambodia’s most heavily cluster-bombed

provinces. By the end of 14 months, they hope to have cleared seven square km in and about 60 of the most contaminated villages.

“For mine action to be more efficient, Cambodia needs a more proactive approach to the situation,” said Heng Ratana, CMAC’s director general. “What makes the BAC project so successful is that it seeks out contaminated land.”

But even the most fleeting look at a map of US cluster bomb strikes makes current efforts pale next to the scale of the problem.

Handicap International picked through the map and the US military data used to draw it in 2007. Of the more than 80,000 recorded cluster bomb strikes, it found that a third fell within a kilometer of a known village. And to add to the inaccuracy of the weapons themselves, more than half those strikes, 55 percent, were made merely to confirm an enemy target: not to hit a known enemy target, just to find out whether there even was one.

There were no enemy targets in Meach Thea’s Srob village home when a US bomb leveled it three decades ago. Though her husband and two children survived the war, they lost everything in the house and lived in constant fear of the next air raid.

Even before the attack that razed her home, Ms Thea recalled recently, seated peacefully on the floor of a new stilt house, they slept outdoors to be nearer their makeshift bunker, a hole in the ground with random planks of wood for a roof.

“We escaped into the hole to get away from the bombs,” she said. “First a plane would come just to have a look. If we saw the plane make smoke, then more planes would come to drop the bombs.”

She remembers the cluster bombs especially, bursting in the sky with their hundreds of little metal balls and falling to the earth like a deadly rain. “When I think about that time, I feel very sad,” Ms Thea said.

Hoping to harness a turning tide of global sentiment against the Vietnam war, the Norwegian government made its first push for a cluster munitions ban in the 1970s.

“Why you go after a particular weapon at a particular time is you have to work out what is politically possible,” said Denise Coghlan, the lead force in Cambodia behind the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international network of non-government groups urging states to join the convention.

For all the outrage over the US bombing of Vietnam and its neighbors, which was at times indiscriminate, Norway and its allies made little headway. But when Israel’s liberal use of cluster munitions against Lebanon in 2006 sparked a new round of complaints, Ms Coghlan said, they seized the moment.

By late February 2007, representatives from 49 countries were in the Norwegian capital to launch the Oslo Process, which finally set the drafting of a convention to ban the weapons in motion. Though absent from the launch, Cambodia soon became one of the plan’s most active and ardent boosters. “Cambodia supports this Oslo appeal to ban cluster munitions, which cause unacceptable harm to civilians, and will become an active participant in the process,” Cabinet Minister Sok An said a month later.

In the coming years, the government even battled efforts to dilute the text, calling for a ban on all sub-munitions without exception while arguing against a transition period or even joint military operations with states that have not joined. But when countries from around the world sent delegates back to Oslo on Dec 3, 2008, to start signing the convention, Cambodia merely sent an observer.

The country’s ambassador to the region, Hor Nambora, cited recent but unspecified “security developments” and said the Cambodian government would need more time to study the “impacts of the convention on its security capability and national defense.”

Less than two months earlier, Thai troops fatally shot a pair of RCAF soldiers when long-simmering tensions over a land dispute near the Preah Vihear temple boiled over into an hour-long firefight with Thai forces.

The day the convention opened for signing, Cambodian Defense Minister General Tea Banh insisted that tensions between the neighbors had nothing to do with the government’s decision not to join convention on cluster munitions. The next day, however, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Cambodia could delay ratifying the plan “due to the fact that Thailand does not sign yet.”

This month, Gen Banh refused to say whether Thailand, which has not ratified the convention either, weighed on Cambodia’s decision, and he repeated the government’s old line of needing more time to consider the consequences of signing. “We need time to study this to find out what we can replace the cluster munitions with. If we sign the convention, we have to respect it and destroy all the cluster munitions,” he said.

General Banh would not say how many or what sort of cluster munitions Cambodia had.

Whatever Cambodia’s cluster munitions cache, NGOs helping the country cope with the fallout from its own bombing believe the government is duty-bound to sign the convention.

“A country so affected by cluster bombs has a moral obligation,” said Jeroen Stol, country director for Handicap International Belgium. “Especially Cambodia, which has the experience of this devastating weapon, should have the motive not to use it.”

But signing could also prove practical. “It’s very, very likely that at the moment the Cambodian government ratifies, more money will become available both for victim assistance and for clearance,” Mr Stol said.

The convention urges countries to provide “technical, material and financial assistance” for both goals to fellow members.

“This means that donor countries in particular are allocating budget lines to enable contaminated countries or countries with stockpiles to fulfill their obligations under the treaty,” said Melissa Sabatier, resident mine action project manager for the UN Development Program. “Cambodia being a country affected by cluster munitions, it could [access] some of these budget lines provided it has acceded to the convention.”

Though for no lack of effort, Cambodia already struggles to meet its obligations under the international Mine Ban Treaty. The government says funding will have to jump by 38 percent if it hopes to meet its 2020 deadline for clearing all anti-personnel minefields, a decade past the original deadline of 2010. But competing demands for demining dollars, it concedes, will make it “very challenging” to maintain even current clearance rates.

“Competition for funds is high,” Ms Sabatier said. “Donors might progressively foster their support to countries that are committed to an array of instruments promoting peace, security and arms reduction.”

According to Mr Stol, that support has started tapering off already. “What you see now is a slight decrease in funding available for clearance,” he said, both because of steadily falling victim rates and the millions donors have spent here already.

Funds for helping victims seem to be faring no better. In a review of the past decade, the International Campaign To Ban Landmines concluded in 2009 that even the basic needs of many mine and UXO survivors were going unmet, with assistance coming almost exclusively from NGOs that were facing “increasing donor fatigue.”

The government has pledged to pay all the bills for overseeing rehabilitation services by 2011. But NGOs have called a new disability plan unrealistic for the burden it places on under-funded and understaffed ministries.

For victims in Cambodia’s rural east, that usually means paying for their care—if they can afford it. Though Ms Soeun’s son survived the blast that killed her husband a year ago, the shrapnel that knocked him out has stayed put in his chest and hip, a constant, inescapable reminder of the cluster bomb that claimed his father.

“I don’t have the money to take it out,” she said softly, her tired eyes belying a quick smile. “The hospital asked for $50 but I don’t have it.”

And though the wounds still sting on cold and damp days, there is no money for the occasional checkup either. “How can we go [to the hospital] when we don’t even have the money to buy enough rice?” she said.

Salvaging scrap metal, Ms Soeun’s husband could earn up to 20,000 riel, about $5, on a good day. She now earns less than half that tending someone else’s potato field. To help make ends meet, she has sent her wounded son to stay with one of her married daughters in another village. None of this has tempted Ms Soeun to take up her dead husband’s old trade. As cautious as she insisted her late husband was, leaving any obvious rockets and bombs he came across where they lay, she knows the risks as well as anyone.

As with the rest of the country, no one knows how many cluster bombs still ring the village. Ms Soeun’s brother-in-law said he found 300 bomblets while clearing just three hectares of land for a nearby rice field a decade ago. CMAC has found another 80 here in the past year on the strength of villagers’ reports. And though no one has ever methodically cleared the village of UXO, since the accident that claimed Ms Soeun’s husband CMAC staff come every few weeks to teach locals how to recognize and avoid the risks.

Ms Coghlan, who also works with mine and UXO victims as the former head of Jesuit Service Cambodia, credits education efforts for helping to bring casualty rates down, including the Education Ministry’s recent role in making it part of the school curriculum. But she believes education will only go so far. Besides the weapons themselves, Ms Coghlan said, “the enemy is the poverty that forces people to try and dismantle these things for scrap metal…. The only thing that’s going to help them is another way of generating income.”

The other, of course, is getting rid of the old bombs. But it could be decades yet before that happens, and convention advocates fear efforts will suffer unless the government, as it has promised, signs on. For all the moral and practical reasons Cambodia has to join, Ms Coghlan pointed out one more: “The last reason is because the survivors are asking them to.”

The Cluster Munition Coalition has collected 400,000 signatures on a petition in Cambodia already and plans to hand the government more when it joins parties to the convention at a meeting in Laos this November.

“It is good if my country stops using cluster bombs,” said Ms Soeun, who knows better than most the terrible cost of such weapons.

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