Encouraging ‘Business Unusual’ for UXO

August 1, 2012

Today we mark the second anniversary of the entering into force of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). It prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of these deadly weapons around the world.

By Minh H. Pham and Robert von Rimscha

encouraging business usual

Since 2010 the Government of Lao PDR has helped in moving CCM forward, because cluster munitions – “bombies” and other munitions intensively dropped or planted during the Second Indochina War – continue to affect the lives of millions of Lao people as unexploded ordnance, or UXO. Lao PDR, which has adopted a Millennium Development Goal on UXO, was the second country in the world to sign the CCM; it hosted the First Meeting of States Parties in 2010. In turn, this has led to ratification of the Convention by 75 countries so far, with a further 36 nations signing up. On this issue Lao PDR has been a leader internationally.

All of the current goals of the UXO sector in Lao PDR – clearance, victim assistance, and mine risk education – remain valid. The 17 accredited clearance organizations, supported by the international community, have cleared more than 21,500 ha of UXO since 1997. One example is the German NGO SODI, which clears in Khamkheut District in Bolikhamsay Province. After clearance, schools and water systems have been built by SODI.

Making 21,500 ha of ground safe is an important achievement. This has helped to reduce related casualties from almost 300 annually, barely a decade ago, to 97 in 2011. Yet no matter how valiant the efforts, if we continue to limit ourselves to this approach only – to continue business as usual – it will be a Mission: Impossible.

We need business unusual. We need creative new thinking.

Such a shift must be based on the realization that efforts in the UXO sector represent a means to a broader end, that of long-term national development. This becomes particularly critical in light of the fact that Lao PDR aims to achieve all nine MDGs, as well as to accelerate progress toward graduation from the Least Development Country (LDC) category by 2020. Seven key issues should be addressed in order to achieve this shift.

First, integrate UXO clearance into the development planning and budgeting process, especially at provincial and village levels. As an issue, UXO must also be clearly linked with the Government’s Round Table Process with international donors, and with the valuable goals of the National Socio-Economic Development Plan 2011-2015. By doing so, we can create a firm basis for development progress and improve sustainability of these efforts for the future. 

Second, develop a set of crystal-clear development "lenses" using new metrics, to define success in the UXO sector. We must move away from the focus only on hectars cleared and number of items destroyed, although these are important. Instead, we must talk about poverty reduction, about promoting a strong climate for investment, and about increases in agricultural production; in commercial activities; in access to social services, especially health and education; and in transport infrastructure. This is crucial to ensure much more impact from an effective clearance effort, given that more than 10 percent of land cleared in the last 15 years has not contained any hazardous items. In turn, this will help to keep the focus on the broader outcome of UXO clearance.

Third, enlarge the resource base for UXO. Already, the Government is planning to increase its domestic resource investment in the UXO sector, a very commendable move that will help to buttress the continuing international assistance for UXO mitigation. Moreover, the country’s new strategic view of the sector, Safe Path Forward II, as well as the ongoing initiative by the National Regulatory Authority (NRA) to establish a more reliable baseline of UXO information and locations, are both additional important steps in the direction of more Government ownership.

Fourth, lower the unit costs of UXO clearance through involvement of the Lao military. Given the resource limitations that Lao PDR still faces, it is necessary not only to inject new financial resources, but also new human resources and new capacity. The Lao People’s Army offers an important and vast pool of people who are well-trained and who can be ready to undertake UXO demining efforts. We welcome the Army’s formation of a demining unit and its plans to engage further. This could benefit from even more specialized demining training for the Army by other nations’ militaries. To create a multiplier effect, the international community should explore a partnership here under the civilian oversight of the NRA, which can ensure the linkages to development as well as provide quality management of the sector.

Fifth, encourage increasing involvement of the private sector.The private sector has cleared a great deal of land in support of major mining, forestry and cultivation projects in Lao PDR. At the same time, it can do more in financing victim assistance and promoting mine risk education. To redress this imbalance and to promote enhanced investment, a new tax deduction for corporate donations towards UXO clearance must be promoted. With the Amended Tax Law coming into effect on 1 October, the timing is particularly auspicious.

Sixth, ensure stronger donor coordination. The UXO Trust Fund, established with UNDP assistance in 2010, has provided a modality for this in recent years, with a degree of success in receiving donor funding. Germany, for example, does both - working with UNDP and with NGOs. It will be important for the future to ensure that the Sector Working Group on UXO serves as the overall coordinating platform, with all international donors working with that platform. On a related note, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her recent visit to Lao PDR, spoke of increasing the American contributions to the UXO sector. We welcome this very much.

Lastly, refine current technologies and methodologies to ensure better utilization of resources. Technology used for clearing landmines in other countries, such as mechanical demining machines, is not necessarily appropriate in Lao PDR. The reason is simple. Bombies in mountainous regions and mines on flat land require different solutions. Yet there is scope for improvements in techniques and application of some new technologies that offer increases in productivity.

The critical years leading up to 2020 will still see tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of cluster munitions remaining under the country’s land surface, waiting for the next victim. But if the Government and international partners act wisely now – if we commit wholeheartedly to business unusual – the residual risk to the population will be minimized, support for implementation of the CCM will be ensured, and the impact of UXO on national development will be diminished. Only on the surface – literally and metaphorically – eradicating UXO is about the removal of remains of the past. In reality, clearing UXO is about creating opportunities for the future.

Minh H. Pham is the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Lao PDR and the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme. Robert von Rimscha is the German Ambassador to Lao PDR.

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