International delegates meeting in Laos – the most heavily bombed nation on earth as a result of a huge US bombing campaign during the Vietnam war, and where 80 million landmines still cause death and tragedy on a near-daily basis – have agreed on a new plan to help rid the world of cluster munitions. The agreement came as a 10-year-old Laotian girl was killed by a cluster bomb.
In what campaigners say represents a major shift in international opinion towards the menace of cluster munitions, more than 100 countries have signed a 66-point plan to destroy stockpiles, de-mine those areas still affected by the weapons and provide extra help for victims.
"This is very important. It's a significant sea change in the global perception of cluster munitions," said Conor Fortune, of the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), an international organisation that campaigns against the weapons. "[While not all countries are represented here], the future use of cluster munitions would be severely condemned."
Campaigners say cluster munitions are some of the deadliest and most dangerous bombs. When dropped they break up to create dozens of deadly "bomblets" – which often fail to detonate and can lie buried for decades.
Most of the munitions littering the countryside of Laos were dropped during a huge Cold War bombing campaign when the US dropped more than two million tonnes of ordnance there as it sought to cut off supply routes for North Vietnamese forces. It is estimated that between 1964 and 1973, the US flew 580,000 bombing runs over Laos, at a rate of one every nine minutes.
What makes the bombs particularly unpleasant is that many are shaped like tennis balls and are often picked up by children, with devastating consequences. In an incident that took place during this week's meeting in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, a 10-year-old girl died and her sister was injured when an old cluster bomb exploded.
According to Dr Vanliem Bouaravong, the director general of Mittaphab Hospital in Vientiane, the two sisters, Paeng, 15, and Piou, 10, were returning from school in central Laos when the younger girl picked up a bomblet to show her sister. She then threw it to the ground, where it exploded.
Both girls were taken to the hospital in the capital, three hours away. The younger girl bled to death 30 minutes after arrival at the hospital. Her sister has severe fragmentation wounds in her neck, hand and hip.
Campaigners say 105 countries, including the UK, have signed a 2008 convention to ban the use of cluster weapons. However, the largest producers and users of the weapons, including the US, China, Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan and Brazil, have not signed and continue to use them.
A recent report by the CMC found that 74 nations still had stockpiles of cluster bombs and that 23 countries remained plagued by the presence of the ordinance.
"The UK is a key country that has destroyed more than a third of its stockpile," Mr Fortune said. "It has been one of the biggest users in the past decade, in the Balkans and Iraq, so it is important that they are destroying their stockpile."
The 66-point plan commits countries to "implement fully" obligations under the convention agreed in 2008. In particular it reduces to one year the deadline for starting to destroy stockpiles of cluster munitions and identifying all "contaminated areas".