The governments of Laos and Cambodia have criticized the United States’ decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine, pointing to the baleful legacies that the weapons have had on their own people.
In a statement yesterday that did not mention the U.S. or Ukraine by name, the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its “profound concern over the announcement and possible use of cluster munitions.”
Describing the country as the world’s “largest victim of cluster munitions,” the Ministry called on all states “to refrain from all use, production, transfer, and stockpiling” of the weapons.
Cluster munitions release many small bomblets over a wide area, some of which invariably fail to detonate, entering a state of deadly hibernation in which they can endanger civilians for decades after hostilities come to an end. It is for this reason that the weapons are the subject of a special international treaty – the Convention on Cluster Munitions – that has been signed by 123 nations, including Laos (but not the U.S., Russia, or Ukraine.)
“The Lao people were victimized by this deadly cluster munition more than five decades ago and even today they continue to be affected by the unexploded ordnance as it continues to pose serious threats to the lives and livelihood of our people,” the Ministry statement added.
The statement came a day after Hun Sen, the prime minister of neighboring Cambodia, made a similar appeal on Twitter, claiming that cluster munitions, even if they help defeat the Russians, would continue to claim civilian victims for “up to a hundred years.”
He cited Cambodia’s “painful experience” with the U.S. cluster bombs dropped on the country in the early 1970s. “I appeal to the U.S. president as the supplier and the Ukrainian president as the recipient not to use cluster bombs in the war because the real victims will be Ukrainians,” the Cambodian leader wrote.
Both Laos and Cambodia are among the most bombed countries on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. military waged a “secret war” in Laos in which it dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on the country. These included an estimated 250 million cluster submunitions, around one in three of which failed to explode on impact. As a result, more than 20,000 people, have been killed by cluster bombs since the end of the war in 1975, and many more maimed and injured, according to the Mines Action Group. Nearly half of the victims have been children.
Cambodia was also heavily bombed by the U.S., and its people have also suffered from the thousands of landmines that were planted, many of them planted by the Cambodian government and opposing armed factions during the country’s civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. These weapons have claimed around 20,000 victims since 1979, according to the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. Despite this, Hun Sen’s government has yet to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The two nations joined the chorus of humanitarian groups that have condemned the U.S. decision to supply Ukraine’s army with the munitions in order to support its fight against the Russian armed forces, which it confirmed late last week.
Indeed, the U.S. position on cluster munitions, like its position on international law in general, is contorted. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki responded to a question about Russia’s alleged use of the weapons by saying that it “would potentially be a war crime.” Now that it serves U.S. interests to supply Ukraine with the weapons, such comments are unlikely to be heard in the White House briefing room.
The U.S. decision is not entirely unsurprising. Great powers will generally do what they feel they need to in order to safeguard perceived interests, and accept a certain tension between values and actions as one of the wages of the “organized hypocrisy,” to annex Stephen D. Krasner’s phrase, of international politics. But Washington’s double-speak on cluster munitions is just one of many reasons why its invocations of the “rules-based order” look to much of the Global South less like a solid claim to the moral high ground than as a form of special pleading.