Baird to travel to Laos as Canada restarts funding to deal with cluster bombs

OTTAWA – Canada is planning to answer a plea by the tiny South Asian country of Laos and restart funding to help it cope with its infestation of deadly cluster bombs, The Canadian Press has learned.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is to announce a $1-million contribution, to be managed through a United Nations agency, during a trip to Laos on Tuesday.

Canada cut its funding to the international effort to help clear cluster munitions from Laos in 2012, after contributing more than $2 million between 1996 and 2011.

The announcement comes after The Canadian Press travelled to Laos this past spring to document the country’s chronic cluster bomb problem, a modern-day legacy of the Vietnam War.

In a series of interviews in the normally closed communist country, senior Laotian government officials urged Canada to return with whatever financial support it could offer to help with its annual $30-million international effort to clear the unexploded ordnance, known as UXO.

Laos is the most cluster bomb-contaminated country in the world on a per capita basis.

American B-52 bombers dropped two million tonnes of bombs on Laos over nine years, including 270 million fist-sized bomblets, 80 million of which failed to explode.

The small, brightly coloured submunitions, known as bombies or bomblets, continue to litter the country, injuring and maiming innocent civilians, often children.

There are an estimated 12,000 cluster bomb victims and their families living in Laos, Vietnam’s tiny landlocked neighbour of six million people.

Baird is to announce the renewed Canadian funding in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, at a government-run health and rehab facility called the Cope Centre that also contains a small but powerful museum that describes the cluster bomb problem.

Sources familiar with the details surrounding the announcement say Baird will announce $500,000 each for two UXO clearance operators based in Laos. They are the British-based Mines Advisory Group, and the country’s own homegrown clearance operator, UXO Lao.

The $1 million will be administered through a United Nations Development Program trust fund.

The deputy director of UXO Lao had effusive praise for Canada’s past funding of the sector during an interview earlier this year, but was one of several officials urging Canada to restart funding.

“Maybe there’s some other internal issue the Canadian people consider more important to resolve,” said Wanthong Khamdala. “But I’d like to request to the Canadian government to consider again to support.”

Baird’s announcement will take place in the Cope Centre, which former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in July 2012 on her historic visit to Laos.

Clinton met Phongsavath Manithong, who lost both his hands and was blinded by a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday in February 2008.

Phongsavath told The Canadian Press in a lengthy interview at the centre earlier this year that his country needs more financial help to assist victims of cluster bombs.

“We need more help from the American government. They are a rich country. That’s not enough to help the disabled people, the survivors.”

Canada is a signatory, but has yet to ratify the international treaty that seeks to ban cluster bomb use.

Canada faces heavy international criticism for the bill that it has tabled in Parliament that would ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions, or CCM.

It contains a provision that would allow the Canadian Forces to be involved in the use of cluster bombs in joint operations with the United States, which has opted out of the convention.

The bill fell into limbo in June when the House of Commons adjourned.

Participants at a major international meeting of states parties to the cluster bomb convention last month in Zambia renewed calls on the government to amend the bill and close the loophole.

“The government’s draft implementation legislation is out of step with the impressive progress being made by this treaty” said Paul Hannon, Executive Director of Mines Action Canada.

“When Parliament returns, it needs to amend Bill S-10 to send a strong message that Canada will never support the use of cluster munitions by anyone anywhere.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.