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As war savagely rages on in Ukraine, the question of whether the United States should supply Ukraine with cluster munitions keeps resurfacing. Although the Biden administration doesn't seem to be considering this request, it is not a solid “no”.
The president’s answer should be simple and clear – absolutely not.
Cluster munitions should be off the table if we care about protecting civilian lives – especially those of innocent children. It shouldn’t be an option if America learned our lessons from using them in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam five decades ago.
As someone who fled war-torn Laos, I know firsthand the destruction and pain caused by cluster munitions during and decades after the conflict. The legacies of cluster munition contaminations will impact Ukraine’s economic development, food security and its people. I can’t help but see Ukraine's bleak future in present day Laos.
What I learned from speaking to bombing survivors
As the chair of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition, I had the opportunity to meet and hear Yong Kham’s story while visiting a demining site in Sepon, Laos, last fall. What I first noticed about the 64-year-old were his eyes. They were like deep, hollow pits that seemed to draw me in, begging me to ask: What was haunting this man?
I learned that he and his family endured the nine-year air war waged by the United States from 1964-73. Most of his childhood was spent in a muddy, foul trench or dark cave to avoid death by bombing. He was injured during one of the raids by a cluster bomb. He survived it, but two siblings were not so lucky.
Decades later, in 2003, his eldest son, Tong Dum, was killed by cluster bombs while collecting wood and scraps. His life was just getting started at the young age of 21.
When asked why he bravely shared his story with me, Yong Kham said, “I don’t want it to happen again. No country should have to suffer from these bombs.”
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Trauma of having to face war, witness and or endure multiple atrocities inflicted by indiscriminate weapons like cluster munitions prevent many survivors from telling their experience and speaking out.
When they do, the world needs to listen. Stand in solidarity with people like Yong Kham and boldly fight to prevent further crimes to humanity.
Unexploded cluster munitions can kill decades later
Though the last known use of cluster munitions by the United States was in Yemen, in 2009, the United States has yet to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, banning further use, transfer and stockpile of these hideous weapons.
More than 100 countries have already joined the accord, most recently Nigeria in February, showing that banning this type of weapon is an international norm.
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U.S policy shows that it wants to move in the right direction by prohibiting the export and use of cluster munitions that exceed a 1% failure rate. While this is progress, we can do better by acceding to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, dispose of these immoral weapons and promote global peace and security.
The U.S. attacks using cluster munitions in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the former Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, Iraq in 2003 and Yemen in 2009 are lingering phantoms from our past.
Though these conflicts may have ended, the scars left behind are still very real. In my birth country of Laos, since the last bomb was dropped 50 years ago, only 1% of the contaminated area has been cleared, posing danger to children walking to school and land held hostage preventing farmers from planting crops.
Today, it is obvious that cluster munitions are having a devastating toll on civilians in Ukraine, as seen in the vicious attack at a train station in April that killed dozens of civilians. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also reported multiple Russian strikes using cluster bombs since the invasion last year.
Let us not contribute to further atrocities by allowing Ukrainian soil to be littered with American cluster bombs.
Sera Koulabdara is CEO of Legacies of War and chair of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition. Follow on Twitter: @SeraKoulabdara and @legaciesofwar