On Tuesday October 15, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird announced the renewal of Canadian aid for unexploded ordnance (UXO) removal in Laos. Totaling $1 million, the aid is to be distributed via a UN Development Agency trust-fund, and conducted by two UXO clearance operators – British Mines Advocacy Group and Canadian UXO Lao. As praise-worthy as this promise is, Canadian interests in the small Southeast Asian country go beyond pure altruism.
Nine Years of Hell
Laos, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest and most isolated states, bears deep scars from the Vietnam War. American bombers dropped nearly two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos between 1964 and 1973, with the intent of denying North Vietnamese troops access to the Ho Chi Minh trail supply line. This included cluster bombs, which, upon detonation, release a number of smaller bomblets. The equivalent of an entire B-52 munitions payload was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24-hours-a-day, for nine years. Cluster munitions from those years had a 30% non-detonation rate, leaving Laos strewn with lethal explosives.
Given the gargantuan scale of American bombing, statistics on UXO in Laos are sobering. A third of the country, including 41 of the 46 poorest districts, still teems with unexploded cluster munitions. At least 20,000 have been killed or maimed since the end of the war, many of them children who mistake the fist-sized bomblets for toys. It is estimated that 30% of the 270 million bomblets dropped on Laotian territory failed to explode, and thirty years after the war’s end, some 300 people are still killed annually by unexploded ordinance.
Though Ottawa’s renewed commitment is commendable, the move raises a number of questions. It first casts a spotlight onto the government’s position on international cluster bomb treaty obligations. Ottawa has signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in 2010, but has yet to ratify it. Bill S-10 had been set to do so earlier this year, but it was tabled in June following the summer adjournment of the House of Commons. Canada, along with the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan, had pushed for a provision in the CCM that allowed for military cooperation with non-signatories (namely the US), which itself has attracted considerable criticism.
Ottawa’s flurry of free trade negotiations may be another factor. An FTA with ASEAN might not be on the official docket, but Ottawa is likely emboldened by the recent breakthroughs and subsequent passing of CETA. Goodwill humanitarian gestures like this demonstrate to the Southeast Asian bloc that Canada is an actor invested in the region. This may help rectify perceptions of Canadian ambivalence towards the region, which has long been a stumbling block to deeper, comprehensive integration between Canada and countries of the Asia Pacific.
The commitment should also be viewed through a domestic lens. With October’s throne speech, the Harper conservatives have begun cranking the gears of the vaunted blue election machine. Analysts have noted that the throne speech contained a number of populist measures to appeal to a broader swath of the Canadian electorate. Aid to Laos may very well be part of this strategy. Previous Canadian aid for UXO removal in Laos had totaled $2 million before being cut in 2012. Recommitting to UXO removal helps the Conservatives stave off a common criticism of pursuing an “immoral” realist foreign policy agenda inappropriate for “Canada the Good.”
Baird’s announcement has been well-received in a country that continues to be plagued by UXO some 40 years after the war’s end. As always in international politics, national interests lie behind altruism – Laos’ low international profile and relative geostrategic unimportance allows Ottawa to flex its humanitarian muscles for national gain.