Bomb legislation is a complete cluster f—k
It’s hard to wipe your bum if you have no hands. It’s hard to win at marbles when you only have one eye. And it’s pretty hard to work as a farmer when you have no legs.
Seems pretty wacky, but this is the reality of living in a country beset with bombs dropped by our coalition partners over thirty years ago.
I’ve just returned from working in Laos with UNICEF and was shocked to learn of the ongoing problems Australia has played a part in creating. I was even more shocked to think that Australia wants to continue to be involved in such a brutal manner of war.
I’m talking about cluster bombs. Laos.
Next week the Senate is likely to debate a Bill that, if passed, would mean Australia could be culpable of assisting the USA in using one of the most horrific, long-lasting and cruelly indiscriminating weapons of war ever invented.
The Bill is for the prohibition of cluster bombs – certainly a good and noble intention – but the loopholes in the legislation are like Swiss cheese.
The international community is signing on to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. More than 109 countries have signed up already.
Yet the draft bill that is set to go through parliament will be in direct contravention to the global attempt to ban cluster bombs as this government proposes Australians continue to assist directly in the use of these lethal weapons.
Cluster bombs are weapons designed to break apart in the air, dispersing up to 2000 small “bombies” to saturate an area. I’ve seen first hand the impact they have had in Laos, which, almost 40 years ago was so severely blasted that it has the distinction of being per person, the most heavily bombed nation in the world.
The scars of nine years of incessant bombing are easily seen. Between 1964 and 1973, 270 million cluster bombs were dropped in Laos in the biggest covert operation in U.S. history.
Typical of the inaccuracy of this weapon of war, 30 per cent of the munitions did not detonate, leaving behind 80 million sub munitions – or ‘bombies’ – lodged in trees, buried in rice paddies and submerged in rivers. They continue to maim and kill children and families every day.
Children like Bounkeut, 17, from Phoxay village, who struggles to pound rice because of the damage she did to her arm when she unknowingly built a fire over an unexploded bomb; or Keurk, 11 from Bangrang village, who no longer wins at marbles because a bomb blew off his right eye while fishing.
Then there is Latsammy, 17 from Naboe village in Sepon, who lost his right hand and three fingers from his left, as well as sight in his right eye. He can no longer attend school because he cannot write without his hand so instead stays home to help with light chores.
Most of the cluster bombs were dropped simply because U.S. bombers couldn’t find their targets in Vietnam. Bad weather or rules of engagement which prohibited attacks on temples and hospitals meant B52 bombers were often returning with bombs still onboard. Not wanting to land with a full load, they would simply dispose of them over the Lao countryside.
The people they impacted weren’t soldiers or combatants, but villagers and farmers living in rural areas, relying on subsistence farming. They were families, mothers, fathers and children caught up in a war they had nothing to do with.
The value of innocent human lives of the Lao people was never taken into consideration. And that is always going to be the case with cluster munitions which disperse in such large number and across such far and imprecise distances.
What I saw in rural Laos was a poor country with hardly any access to services and infrastructure. Disability services are few and far between and prosthetics are expensive beyond reach.
UNICEF believes the proposed legislation dramatically undermines the spirit of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
It allows Australian soldiers to actively and directly assist our allies to continue using Cluster Munitions; it gives non-states parties, such as the USA, unfettered access to stockpile their cluster bombs on Australian soil, in direct contravention of the Convention’s clear prohibition against stockpiling; and it does nothing to prevent ongoing direct or indirect Australian investment in manufacturing bombs.
For Laos, the consequences of cluster bombs are still being felt 37 years after the war. At the current rate of clearance, it’s going to take 3000 years to clear the land and, although more than half of the population was born after the conflict, they continue to endure its consequences.
Around 300 people are still killed in Laos every year, some 40 per cent of the victims children.
Children die because they play with the small round colourful balls which could easily be mistaken for toys. Their parents are maimed or killed because they are cultivating their rice paddies or tending their animals on contaminated land. Those children that are injured will struggle to go to school. Their health system will fail them. They may become ostracised from their communities.
The economic costs of unexploded ordnance including cluster bombs is clear – the lost production, health costs and social impacts are still being felt in Laos and many other affected countries today, many years after the conflict has ceased. The human costs are immeasurable.
Yet for countries with a more recent war history – Iraq, Lebanon and Libya – the impact is only just beginning. Do we want Australia’s hands dirtied with the blood from cluster munitions?
There is a small window of opportunity before the Australian Senate passes the legislation. The bill will be debated in the Senate on Wednesday. To ensure that our legislation does not leave us culpable of more deaths and disability for generations to come, sign the petition and ensure loopholes in the legislation are taken out: www.cmcaustralia.org.
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