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Monday, May 04, 2009

Ban Cluster Bombs

Here is a piece I wrote about cluster bombs that the San Jose Mercury News printed on Friday, May 1.

"Opinion: 40 years later, cluster bombs are still killing; ban them

By Elliot Margolies

Special to the Mercury News
Posted: 04/30/2009 08:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 04/30/2009 08:12:17 PM PDT

A multimedia exhibit I stumbled upon in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, was deeply disturbing. Photos and narratives of people with prosthetics portrayed stories of hope and healing. What pained me was the realization that U.S. cluster bombs dropped on Laos over 35 years ago had caused these injuries. And those bombs continue to blow up as many as 300 Laotian villagers annually.

I am hardly unique in not remembering that our country bombed Laos daily for nine years in a secret campaign during the Vietnam War. Air Force records document over 500,000 bombing missions, dropping over 270 million cluster bombs.

A Defense Department report to Congress in 2000 said that 23 percent of cluster bombs did not explode when dropped in some test situations. That conservative estimate translates to 81 million "bombies" — as Lao people call them — lying in the forests and just under the ground in the rice fields and villages. Many look like yellow baseballs; they are filled with ball bearings waiting to rip a body apart.

In Xienghuang province, a heavily bombed area, there are posters in the schools and songs taught to students warning them not to pick up the yellow metal balls. It's not just the kids who need to be warned repeatedly. In impoverished Laos, many adults are tempted to look for scrap metal they redeem for cash. They buy handheld metal detectors and look for bomb fragments. As the price of scrap metal has gone up in recent years,
so too have the number of arms and legs blown off.

Since 1994, bomb-clearing squads have painstakingly cleared the land and have safely destroyed about a half-million "bombies." In that time, the U.S. has contributed $20 million toward the cleanup — far less than the bonuses awarded to AIG.

Those of us from Silicon Valley have a special connection because the cluster-bomb manufacturer is Lockheed Martin. But it turns out that we are at a pivotal moment when our voices could actually send cluster bombs into extinction.

The International Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 95 nations last December. These nations are destroying their stockpiles and they agree never to use or sell cluster bombs again. The Bush administration did not sign it. But there is every reason to believe that if Americans tell President Barack Obama it's important to us, he will review the treaty. In mid-February a coalition of 67 nongovernmental organizations led by Human Rights Watch sent a letter to him calling for a review. Now is the time to add your voice.

Meanwhile, there is a smaller but important step to take with our representatives in Congress. A bill before Congress will greatly limit U.S. use of cluster bombs in war, especially in civilian areas. Ask your representative in the House to co-sponsor HR 981. Both of our senators are already co-sponsors of a companion bill in the Senate.

Elliot Margolies lives in Palo Alto and recently spent a month backpack-traveling in Thailand and Laos. He wrote this article for the Mercury News. "

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Dear Elliot Margolies,
    thank you for your recent article about Laos' cluster bomb tragedy. If more people knew about the legacies left by those horrific weapons, we might have a chance to have them banned world wide.
    I have been photo-documenting Laos' transitions of the last eight years with the intention of publishing a book. If you have a minute, I invite you to have a look:
    thanks again,
    P.S. please let me know if you have any more material about S.E Asia