Battle zone's lethal harvest
September 23, 2009
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on September 22, 2009. Distributed with permission.
I love the Obama family's White House garden. It's a great way to promote the value of fresh, home-grown food, and I hope many will follow the example that the president and first lady have set. But today I am urging President Obama to pick up a pen instead of a garden hoe, because hidden in the garden's onions and tomatoes is a connection to international humanitarian law that deserves his immediate attention.
Today, villagers in Laos are celebrating the 15th anniversary of an effort to remove American bombs from their soil. In 1964, the United States began a bombing campaign in Laos that ultimately dropped 260 million cluster bombs over a period of nine years. Nearly half the arable land in Laos is still littered with unexploded cluster munitions. With 80 percent of the population surviving through subsistence agriculture, gardening has become a necessary exercise in overcoming fear.
Cluster munitions are small bombs, or "bomblets," that are dropped from a large shell or bomb casing. Since many of these bomblets did not blow up as designed, they turned large areas of Laos into a vast, unmapped mine field. Even today, some 35 years after the bombing ended, an average of 300 Lao villagers are injured or killed by these weapons each year.
The bomb-removal project was launched by Mennonite Central Committee, the Mines Advisory Group, and the Lao government in 1994. Today there will be speeches and photo exhibits that detail the history of the effort to make the gardens, fields, and village paths of Laos safe for daily living.
There is truly much to celebrate, as 1,000 workers are now destroying ordnance and leading education programs throughout the Southeast Asian country. Even so, at the current rate of clearance, villagers will be finding bomblets amid their tomatoes and onions for decades to come.
Over the past 45 years, the use of these indiscriminate weapons has extended to more than 25 countries. While millions of dollars are spent each year to find and safely destroy them, their repeated use has created an economic and humanitarian disaster.
In response, many government leaders have decided to pick up pens. In December 2008, 94 countries gathered in Norway to sign a treaty – the Convention on Cluster Munitions – banning the production, transfer, stockpiling, and use of cluster munitions. The treaty's signatories include many U.S. allies that have cluster munitions. Regrettably, though, the United States has joined Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan, and India in refusing to sign it.
The effort to ban cluster munitions parallels a similar effort to ban land mines, which led to a treaty in 1997. While 156 nations have now signed on to the Mine Ban Treaty, the United States continues to resist, joining other major military powers in refusing to agree to ban land mines.
We can only imagine the outrage any of us would feel if we found an unexploded bomb or land mine in our tomatoes. And the outrage would only be compounded if we learned that the ordnance had come from another nation. Yet this is precisely what happens in places as diverse as Lebanon, Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Cambodia.
Our national failure to sign both of these treaties not only contributes to humanitarian harm; it also breeds resentment and anger among people we desperately need to be our friends. Whatever military advantage might be gained on the battlefield is quickly lost in the hearts and minds of the world's gardeners. When tillers of the soil in Afghanistan, Iraq, or southern Lebanon watch their children die from U.S. bombs, we become less secure.
So, Mr. President, if you should happen to be working in the White House garden this week, enjoy the rich soil and a good harvest of fresh vegetables. Then please put down your garden hoe, pick up a pen, and sign the land-mine and cluster-munitions treaties. Help ensure that all the world's gardeners can plant and harvest in peace.