Cluster munitions treaty will help rid Vietnam of explosive legacy of war

Chuck Searcy is an American veteran of the war in Vietnam. Since 1995 he has lived in Vietnam and worked on humanitarian programs, including Project RENEW in Quang Tri Province – an effort to clean up bombs and mines with support from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Searcy has been awarded Vietnam’s Friendship Medal.

One hot morning last July, for three young boys ages 12 to 14 in the poor rural village of Cau Nhi in Hai Lang District, Quang Tri Province, the day started out as usual. A few hours later it would end in tragedy.

Dao Ba Thanh, age 12, Tran Duy Quyet, 13, and Pham Nhu Hoi, 14, lived near each other in rural Hai Chanh commune. During summer break from school, they helped their families by herding their cows to a nearby hillside to graze. Villagers said the boys sometimes looked for “sim fruit” (myrtaceae), a wild fruit popular with local children.

On Thursday morning, July 10th, the three boys took their cows to the hillside as usual. Two hours later, people in the area heard a terrible explosion and rushed up the hill. They found all three boys bloodied and lifeless, their bodies disfigured by a cluster munition explosion that had ripped them apart. Cluster bombs or “bombies” are small munitions the size of a rock or a small ball, often difficult to see, that spew out deadly bits of metal when they explode, ripping into flesh and causing death or serious injury.

No one will ever know exactly what happened that morning. We only know that cluster munitions were the cause of this terrible accident, because villagers found cluster bombs scattered around the area where the boys were killed.

The tragedy of Thanh, Quyet, and Hoi is just one of countless thousands of such accidents in Vietnam.

Today, however, there is new hope. After three decades of suffering a legacy of war that has brought death, injury, and heartbreak to more than 100,000 families since Vietnam won the peace in 1975, there is a real expectation that the tragedy and devastation of “cluster bombs” and other explosive remnants of the war can be ended during our lifetimes – maybe in the next 10 years.

An international treaty was signed by 95 nations in Oslo, Norway in December that will ban forever the manufacture, export, and use of the small but deadly “bombies” that were dropped by the thousands from U.S. military aircraft and fired from artillery guns during the war.

The treaty will also provide major assistance to countries that still are contaminated by these weapons. Vietnam is near the top of the list eligible for help, also neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The treaty’s provisions aim to clean up the problem of UXO contamination with new funding, equipment, and technology from countries that have signed the treaty.

Of special importance for Vietnam are provisions in the treaty, never before included in such an international protocol, to expand humanitarian support for children and adults who have been injured in explosive accidents, but who survived. Victims’ families and their communities that have also suffered damage from these weapons will be eligible for assistance as well. The help could be in the form of medical and rehabilitation programs for disabled victims, job and income creation, vocational training, and other forms of cooperation.

As an American veteran of the war in Vietnam, of course I understand too well the devastating consequences of cluster bombs. I also recognize the fact that no one knows more acutely and more painfully the tragic reality of cluster bombs and other UXO today than the people of Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have to live with that harsh reality every day, with the knowledge that cluster bombs remain on the ground or just under the surface, waiting to kill or maim an innocent child, or farmer, or passer-by, suddenly and unexpectedly.

Cluster bombs disperse hundreds of explosive “submunitions,” some the size of a tennis ball, which contain tiny metal shards, bits of steel shaped like ball bearings and brads and staples. These are strewn over an area the size of one or two football fields. Large numbers fail to explode on impact. They become covered with shallow soil or sand, or leaves and trash. Or they may be wedged among rocks where they become corroded and discolored over time, and difficult to notice by children walking along a roadway or farmers plowing a field.

Worldwide, 98 percent of cluster bomb casualties over the past 40 years have been civilian, not military. Research by humanitarian organizations in Southeast Asia reveals that 60 percent of casualties from unexploded cluster bombs are children.

In Vietnam, it is estimated that nearly 40 percent of all UXO accidents and injuries since 1975 have been caused by cluster bombs. Data from Project RENEW and BOMICEN indicate that in Quang Tri Province, about one-third of the casualties have been children under 16 years of age – youthful lads like Thanh, Quyet, and Hoi.

Such tragic losses to families and communities, the harm to Vietnam’s well-being and future security, must be stopped. The Cluster Munitions Treaty offers the first real hope that we can achieve this goal.

Vietnam’s government leaders have attended international meetings and conferences which have led to the treaty that was signed by 95 nations in Oslo in December. Vietnam has shared experiences, observations, and useful questions as the content of the treaty was shaped. Key officials in the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the new Vietnam Bomb-Mine Action Center (VBMAC), leaders of provincial governments, UXO victims, and NGO representatives have been involved in this process.

The government of Vietnam will soon make a decision about signing the treaty. The document is now at the United Nations in New York awaiting further signatories. Hopefully Vietnam’s decision will be a strong and determined affirmative to the ground-breaking provisions and possibilities of the treaty.

Signing the treaty also brings responsibilities. Vietnam’s leadership takes these responsibilities very seriously, and rightly so.

The treaty requires nations to elevate the issue of cluster bombs and other UXO to the level of a top national priority. For a country to be eligible for a major infusion of funding and technical assistance under the treaty, the national government must develop a comprehensive management plan for making the best use of new resources and directing those assets toward successful cleanup of the contamination – in only 10 years!

That seems like an impossible dream. Some Vietnamese say that it cannot be done. The time is too short. Some predict that the problem could take $10 billion and 100 years to clean up at the present level of activity.

At the present level of activity – maybe. But Vietnam has demonstrated again and again, in the face of overwhelming odds, that the nation and its people have a great strength and a tremendous capacity to win battles against adversity. Vietnam repelled centuries of invasion and futile attempts by other nations to rule this land. Vietnam emerged victorious after decades of war, winning independence and freedom and earning the respect of the world.

In matters of governance in times of peace, in response to public crises, Vietnam has also demonstrated that it can rise to challenges that threaten the health and well-being of its people.

One such example was noted around the world: Vietnam’s eradication of polio.

In 1990, Vietnam adopted a plan to eradicate the crippling disease of polio in less one decade. In 1993 nearly 10 million Vietnamese children, about 85 percent of those under age 5, were vaccinated against polio. By 1997, the number of confirmed polio cases dropped to only one new case. By 1998 the number of new cases was zero. That is an amazing achievement.

How did Vietnam do it?

Through a combination of strategies involving a huge public mobilization. Fixed and mobile vaccination sites, and hundreds of mobile teams which visited house to house on land and boat to boat on riverways, reached into every corner of the nation and provided the target population with the needed immunizations.

Each district prepared logistical plans showing population, vaccine supply, staffing and other requirements, maps located the positions of vaccination posts and marked the routes to be taken by the mobile teams. Aerial photography was used over the waterways to locate boat-dwelling populations.

Wisely, Vietnam did not try to do it alone. Vietnam enlisted international support from the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and governments around the world. Members of a worldwide civic club, Rotary International, committed $500 million in private funds to help pay for polio eradication around the globe.

The success of this mobilization campaign is an example of Vietnam’s commitment to its people and its leadership in working with the international community. It is a model the world can follow in eliminating future deaths and injuries from cluster munitions and other UXO, as the provisions of the Oslo Treaty are implemented around the world.

I am hopeful that the U.S. also will sign the Oslo Treaty this year. Just this month President Obama took a major step forward, by signing legislation that bans cluster bomb exports by the United States to other countries. This brings to an end the U.S. practice which transferred hundreds of thousands of cluster munitions to 28 countries in past years.

Vietnam did not cause this problem, Vietnam has not been part of the problem. Vietnam has never used cluster bombs. Vietnam has never made cluster munitions, never sold them, never exported them. Vietnam does not have any cluster bombs in stock that would need to be destroyed under the provisions of the Oslo Treaty.

Yet Vietnam has been terribly harmed by this problem.

Vietnam can show to the world its commitment and leadership in this global humanitarian campaign to eliminate the deadly danger of cluster munitions and UXO. And I believe that Vietnam can finish the job in the next 10 years!

Vietnam did it with polio eradication. Vietnam can do it with cluster munitions. With strong leadership from Vietnam’s government, with solid and responsible management and planning, and international cooperation supported by sufficient funding and technical resources, Vietnam can, and will, solve this problem.

Never again will local authorities and grieving neighbors face the awful burden, the eternal sadness of explaining to a stunned family that their son has just been killed by a cluster munition. Never again will innocent young people like Thanh, Quyet, and Hoi lose their lives or their limbs because of this awful legacy of war.

Instead, our children and our grandchildren can hear from us stories of the sorrowful past. We can explain to them the terrible danger that post-war generations faced every day, living in fear for decades. And we can tell them, with pride and confidence, that they will never have to face such a fearsome experience themselves.

We can tell them that Vietnam is now safe.

Chuck Searcy

Original English language version of article published in Quan Doi Nhan Dan newspaper on Monday, May 11, 2009

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