New case for US reparations in Laos
By Melody Kemp
VIENTIANE - Laos carries the tragic distinction of being the most heavily
bombed country in the history of modern warfare. Thirty-five years after the
United States wound up its so-called "secret war" against communist guerillas,
the impact of its unexploded ordnance (UXO) continues to take a heavy human and
A new report published jointly by UXO Lao and the Lao National Regulatory
Authority (NRA) has shed more light on the damage caused by the US's UXOs. The
research surveyed 94% of Lao households and concluded that an estimated 20,000
people had died from UXOs since the conflict ended after the communist takeover
Maligna Saignavongs, the retired head of the NRA and the
country's chief negotiator for the Convention on Cluster Munitions, estimates
that figure could be even higher. "In the remote areas, many people simply
bleed out and die, their bodies eaten by animals. Their families may not know
they died from UXO."
In June, a joint US-Vietnam working group announced that US$300 million would
be committed to cleaning up the legacy of US chemical adventurism in Vietnam.
Walter Isaacson, chairman of the group, said he was hopeful that the US
government would provide about half of the agreed $300 million, with US
corporations, foundations and other donors covering the remainder.
That agreement has raised new questions about whether the US government should
pay much more for the damage caused by its large-scale bombing of Laos. "The US
State Department is keen to let people know that they have provided more
assistance for UXO clearance than anyone else," said Mike Boddington, founder
of the Vientiane-based, British-run Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic
Enterprise, or COPE.
COPE's research shows that the US government, corporations and private
foundations have given over $39.5 million for UXO clean-up since 1993 - a
trifling sum compared with the billions it has allocated for its new generation
of wars. A US Senate committee recently recommended committing $7 million for
UXO clearance in Laos in 2011 and $3.5 for similar activities in Vietnam. The
US Congress allocated about $5 million and the US State Department $1.9 million
for UXO clearance in Laos this year.
The US war in Laos was shrouded in intrigue and disinformation. An
Australian-made film entitled Bomb Harvest contains footage of a US
government spokesperson saying that internationally accepted rules of
engagement were suspended during the campaign in Laos. Legally, that means
there are still unresolved questions over who should bear primary
responsibility, the US government or the private companies who produced the
weapons, for UXO victims and other legacies of the war in Laos.
As warfare is increasingly outsourced to private companies, questions are
emerging about the legal liability of private companies that supply and profit
from war. From a common law perspective, US negligence and injury in Laos are
easy to prove, say international lawyers. However, the tenets of war
reparations have been generally designed so that the vanquished are
economically punished for both their aggression and loss.
Until recently, the US contributed virtually nothing towards UXO victim
assistance in Laos, with funds instead going towards ongoing clean-up efforts.
The NRA's Maligna claims that "the US has given us assistance, but a lot of the
money was given in the form of out-of-date equipment and tools that we had to
In 2009, the US Agency for International Development channeled funds from the
private Leahy War Victims Fund (LWVF) to support Catholic Relief Services in
Laos as part of a three-year grant that began in 2006. The project was designed
to work in three districts in Laos to provide educational opportunities for
disabled children, including those injured by UXOs.
LWVF also awarded a $280,000 three-year grant in January 2009 to the
non-governmental organization Handicap International for people with physical
disabilities, including UXO victims, and continued to support the efforts of
World Education to train medical personnel to address the legacy of war
injuries in southern Laos. While there are no hard figures available, some
activists tracking the issue estimate that the US still spends over $2 million
per year on efforts to locate the remains of soldiers considered "missing in
action" in Laos.
Laos, which had an estimated one ton of ordnance per capita rained on it by US
bombers, has more recently emerged as a global icon for the movement against
cluster bombs. It is estimated by the US State Department's Walk the Earth With
Safety bureau that about 30% of those bombs did not explode on contact with the
ground. Canisters dropped from US B-52s could have carried up to 600 cluster
bomb units and distributed them over a wide terrain on impact.
A new research report entitled National Survey of UXO Victims and Accidents
reveals that, apart from cluster munitions, land mines, artillery shells and
other US ordnance also continue to cause significant casualties decades after
the end of the war. Indeed, many areas of the country where injuries have
recently occurred were not adjacent to known combat zones.
During the conflict, the largest numbers of bombing-related fatalities came
among soldiers. Nowadays, it's farmers, fisherfolk, foresters and women and
children foraging for food in UXO-contaminated areas. That is, those being
killed now by what is known to be US ordnance are civilians merely trying to
make a living. Many of those killed and injured, such as the five children
killed in southern Champassak province in February this year, were not even
alive during the war.
UXO contamination also continues to take a heavy economic toll on the
impoverished country. A farming and forestry project in Khammouane, close to
the Vietnamese border, was recently halted when the area in which Lao villagers
wanted to expand farming and forestry was found to be infested with US UXOs.
Anecdotal reports from NGOs indicate that farmers displaced by large-scale
economic developments, such as dams and plantations, are often being pushed
onto lands that are both marginal for agriculture and contaminated by UXOs.
Many in Laos, particularly the upland minorities who still hunt and forage for
their livelihoods, are now seeking food in upper reaches of mountain ranges
where UXOs often lurk underfoot. They are doing this are due to deforestation
in lowland areas.
One group trying to make a difference is COPE, the only agency in Laos
providing prosthetics and orthotics and specializing in post-amputation
rehabilitation. In early August, British ambassador Quinton Quayle presented
Michael Boddington of COPE with a Member of the British Empire medal in
recognition of his humanitarian works.
After the ceremony, Quayle and his wife Alison toured major landmarks in Laos,
including a walk around the heavily bombed Plain of Jars. Alison fell and broke
her leg and after a successful medical evacuation to Bangkok wrote to
Boddington: "The actual experience drove home, as nothing else could, how lucky
we are ... to have things like SOS and helicopters at our disposal and ... [to
know] that at the end of a long day you'll be in good care. What must it be
like to be a Lao UXO victim?"
The answer to that question is often harrowing. The Danish Red Cross recently
advised COPE of a young boy named Lao Song who lived near the Lao-Vietnamese
border and suffered burns from white phosphorus after kicking a steel canister
left over from the war. His family lived far from the nearest navigable track
and the boy was conscious throughout the eight days it took for his leg to burn
off without proper medical attention.
"We were able to give Lao Song a new leg. His father had made a rudimentary
bamboo prosthesis to enable him to walk, but he needed something better than
that," said Boddington.
UXO Lao/NRA survey data show that traumatic amputation of arms and/or legs are
the most common UXO-related injuries. The survey also estimated that about
20,493 people in Laos currently require a prosthesis and that only 583 of them
have to date had their needs met. Each prosthetic leg costs approximately $60,
which means there is an immediate $1.23 million need just for artificial limbs,
not inclusive of rehabilitation and other related expenses.
Boddington estimates each prosthesis costs $200 in total outlay, a figure
consistent with International Committee of the Red Cross estimates. He says
most of his center's funds come from Australia, but that it currently faces a
significant financial shortfall.
"This is not a short-term issue and the costs of rehabilitating UXO victims is
much more than the Ministry of Health can afford. Embassies will give you
funding for three years, but the process is much longer than that," said
Boddington. "We pay our staff well, and we train them in technical skills and
English, but we cannot pay them enough. Inevitably they get an offer from a
tour company and off they go."
Military adventurism for less ideological reasons, including access to and
control over natural resources, has changed the face of modern warfare.
However, some wonder whether reformed reparation laws that forced state
aggressors and the private companies that supply them with weaponry to pay for
all injuries and assistance to non-combatants would reduce the risk of future
Vietnam tried for years to win US compensation for its victims of US chemical
warfare, including the US's use of the defoliant Agent Orange, but ultimately
failed to secure a US court decision in its favor. Laos has not collected
comprehensive data on the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants
on its southern territories, but the recent $300 million deal Vietnamese
stakeholders reached with the US panel could change that.
Meanwhile, signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions are scheduled to
meet in Vientiane in early November. The US is notably not a signatory to the
munitions-curbing treaty, but 107 other nations are, 40 of which have formally
ratified the agreement. The convention took effect on August 1, 2010, and the
meeting in Laos will be the first since its enactment.
"It will be Laos' Andy Warhol moment, our 15 minutes of fame. The landmine
treaty did nothing for those left behind, but Article Five of this Cluster
Munitions Convention is all about the casualties," said Boddington, who
previously worked in both Mozambique and Cambodia on UXO issues and until
recently served as chair of the committee on victims assistance with the NRA.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions is explicit about the need to provide
assistance to UXO victims. But while the relevant article is groundbreaking, it
does not clarify who should be held financially accountable for meeting the
costs - though many believe in the case of Laos the US government should be
So far, UXO victims in Laos have not brought any legal actions against the US
government similar to the ones filed in US courts by Vietnamese Agent Orange
victims. Activists and observers concur that the chances of success are
minimal, as US courts have the right to toss out cases they do not consider to
be in the US national interest.
However, at the current rate of clean-up, UXO Laos/NRA estimates it will take
3,000 years to completely clear the country of all the explosive remnants left
behind from US bombers. That means thousands of potential new UXO injuries and
deaths in the years ahead, particularly in the southern province of Savannakhet
and in the northern province of Xieng Khuoang, where US bombing was
Barring a major and costly clean-up, there are still several measures that with
fair compensation from the US could be taken to avert more UXO-related death
and destruction. Because there are no ambulances with life-saving equipment
outside of Laotian cities, the best a traumatized UXO victim can usually hope
for is that a tractor or motorbike is available to take them to the nearest
But that's no guarantee of survival. "Doctors here lack the skills. We only
have a few who can do clean amputations. We need more prosthetists. We need
vocational training and we badly need community based mental health services,"
Boddington said. "Imagine what it must be like to have to adjust to walking on
two artificial limbs, and possibly be blind as well?"