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Moderator: Good day from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am the Hub Director, Zia Syed, and I want to thank you all for joining this briefing. Today we are pleased to be joined from Washington, DC, by Jerry Guilbert, Chief of Programs for Weapons Removal and Abatement at the U.S. Department of State.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Mr. Guilbert, and we will get to as many questions as we can.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Mr. Guilbert.
Mr. Guilbert: Thanks, and good morning, everyone, or, depending on where you’re calling in from, good evening. Thanks for joining us today. As Zia said, I just wanted to start off with some brief remarks, then we’ll turn it over to you for your questions.
Yesterday, April 4th, we marked International Landmine Awareness Day to call attention to the suffering that landmines and explosive remnants of war, or ERW as we call it, continue to bring to thousands of innocent civilians around the world. It’s also an opportune time to let people know just what the United States is doing to tackle this persistent problem. So we’re pleased to release the 21st Edition of “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” which is the State Department’s annual report on U.S. conventional weapons destruction assistance efforts around the globe.
The Conventional Weapon Destruction Program improves civilian safety, security, and stability through two main lines of effort. First, we have what we refer to as our small arms and light weapons threat reduction programs; and second, we have what we call our humanitarian mine action assistance programming.
Stockpiles of excess small arms and light weapons pose a range of security-related and humanitarian threats. Terrorists, insurgents, and criminals exploit poorly secured munitions to fuel instability and violence that imperil international security interests. And where poorly secured stockpiles include manned portable air defense systems, or MANPADS as they’re called, the consequences of theft or loss could have wide-ranging and catastrophic outcomes.
The conventional weapon destruction programs assist partner countries with destroying their excess, unstable, and at-risk munitions, improving physical security at munition storage facilities, and bringing their stockpile management practices into line with international standards.
On the humanitarian mine action front, the dangers posed by landmines and other ERW can linger for decades in post-conflict environments. In the areas reeling from recent fighting, stabilization and humanitarian aid efforts effectively are blocked until ERW, improvised explosive devices, and landmines can be cleared from key infrastructure. Civilian populations living near minefields and ERW-contaminated land face permanent injury or death simply by performing everyday activities like accessing clean water, playing, or just walking to work.
To mitigate these problems, conventional weapons destruction programs include a range of humanitarian mine action activities, including hazard area surveys to pinpoint contamination; landmine and ERW clearance to remove those hazards; and risk education for vulnerable populations living near contaminated areas as well as assistance for landmine and ERW survivors to help them get their lives back on track and lead safe, productive, and healthy lives.
Since 1993, the United States has provided more than $4.2 billion in conventional weapons destruction assistance to over 100 countries. And in 2021 alone, our conventional weapon destruction efforts helped 62 countries to get themselves to a more stable and prosperous future.
Our humanitarian mine action efforts in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands have always been particularly important to us and a top priority for the United States given the nature and origin of ERW contamination throughout the region. Since 1993, conventional weapon destruction assistance to East Asia and the Pacific has totaled over $738 million to clear unexploded ordnance, provide risk education to people living near explosive hazards so they know how to stay safe going about their daily lives, helping survivors of ERW accidents to recover from their wounds, and assisting our partner governments to build their own capacities to manage ERW threats in the long term.
In 2021, conventional weapon destruction assistance for Southeast Asia and the Pacific exceeded $72 million. Our cooperation on clearing unexploded ordnance and other ERW is helping to heal the wounds of war, allowing our relationships to move beyond the past and focus on our shared desire to bring peace, security, and prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
Our accomplishments included returning over 101 million square meters of land — which is equivalent to more than 14,000 soccer pitches — to communities for safe and productive use while destroying approximately 100,000 landmines, pieces of unexploded ordnance, and other explosive hazards.
The initial State Department allocation for conventional weapons destruction worldwide in 2021 was $233.8 million. And to that you can add nearly $32 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense that complemented State Department programming. Our top recipient countries in 2021 included Laos at $40 million, Iraq at $38.2 million, Colombia at $21 million, Afghanistan at $20 million, Vietnam at $17.5 million, and Ukraine at $8.5 million.
So, with that initial background information, I’m now happy to open up the call and answer any questions you may have. Thanks, and looking forward to the conversation.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s teleconference.
Mr. Guilbert, let me go ahead and ask you a question while we wait for questions to come in. You spoke about Vietnam in your opening there, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how the United States has continued to expand its commitment in Vietnam, but with an emphasis on central provinces like Quang Tri and Quang Binh. Is the U.S. active elsewhere in the country?
Mr. Guilbert: Yes, thanks for that question, Zia. So historically we’ve focused on Quang Tri and Quang Binh simply because that’s where the historical demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam had been, so that’s where the majority of military activity was taking place. Consequently, Quang Tri and Quang Binh were the most heavily contaminated with unexploded ordnance and that’s where you had the most civilian casualties, and wanting to help the government in Vietnam address its highest priorities first – that’s where U.S. assistance has focused.
But I’ll also point out that we also support the Vietnam National Mine Action Center in Hanoi as they develop their capacity to oversee survey and clearance operations throughout the country. The U.S. has also funded clearance in the Thua Thien Hue province, with a soon-to-be-completed project to clear large portions of Ap Bia Hill, also known as Hamburger Hill. The project is located at one of the sites of the most intense fighting during the U.S.-Vietnam War. As that project draws to its conclusion, we’re happy to say that the [inaudible] hill is soon going to have a sign proudly displaying both the U.S. and Vietnamese flags flying together declaring that the path to the hill’s summit is free of unexploded ordnance.
So while we focus on the central provinces because that’s where historically the majority of casualties have been, we are looking elsewhere in the country to ensure that we’re providing a whole-of-Vietnam approach and we are supporting the Government of Vietnam’s highest priorities for addressing unexploded ordnance throughout the country.
Moderator: Thank you. Let me go ahead and ask another question. With so much attention focused on the Pacific Islands, what is the Department’s vision to support countries impacted by World War II-era legacy contamination?
Mr. Guilbert: That’s a good question. I mean, I think a lot of focus on unexploded ordnance in the region has focused on the Vietnam War and a lot of U.S.-origin unexploded ordnance that’s been left behind in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. But it is important to remember that there is a substantial amount of UXO contamination throughout the Pacific Islands, and despite the fact that that war has been over for many decades now, that unexploded ordnance does continue to pose a major humanitarian threat to those small island countries which don’t have a lot of land to begin with. And when you’re talking about closing off large portions of land to productive economic use because of that contamination, helping those countries get past those legacies of war and address that UXO contamination, it’s not just important for humanitarian reasons, it’s important for their own national development, it’s important for economic prosperity throughout the region — it’s important for a lot of different reasons.
So, I think you can look at Palau as one good example of a country that we’ve really helped to build its own capacity in UXO clearance in the long term. We’re working with one of our implementers in Palau – it’s an NGO called Norwegian People’s Aid. We’ve been helping Palau’s national UXO safety office to staff itself and build its capacity to finish a national survey to develop its own priorities for UXO clearance, which we’ll then focus our clearance assets on in future years.
We’re also working very closely with national authorities elsewhere in the region to expand our assistance throughout the Pacific Islands based on our historic support in countries like the Solomons and the Marshall Islands, and with new opportunities that are opening up in places like Fiji, where we’re just starting a new program this year. There is a lot of opportunity to expand our partnerships throughout the Pacific to address, again, that legacy contamination from World War II.
Moderator: Excellent, thank you very much. We have a quiet group today. Let me go ahead and ask another question then, as we wait to see if any journalists will ask questions directly.
There are a lot of donors supporting UXO, unexploded ordnance, clearance efforts in East Asia, Southeast Asia. How is the United States making sure resources are being used well and coordinated in this crowded space?
Mr. Guilbert: Yes, it is a bit of a crowded space. I think the good news is there are a lot of international donors who are providing support to what is a continuing high need throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. I mentioned earlier our efforts to help bolster national capacity in Vietnam as well as Palau, but I want to say that’s something that we do in all of the countries in the region where we’re working. We want to work with those national governments to help them better define what their own priorities are for clearing unexploded ordnance, landmines, other ERW. And then, as they develop those priorities, we want to help them achieve those priorities by funding, surveying, and clearance and risk education in the areas that they themselves identify.
So, the key to well-coordinated assistance from our perspective, it’s not something that donor governments like the United States should be doing just by talking to other donor governments. It’s a process that has to be led by our partner governments in the countries where we’re operating. We want to help develop their capacities to really identify their own priorities, and then we want to help ensure that international donors are working towards the priorities that those countries themselves identify.
So, everywhere we work, we’re developing those host-nation authorities to build up their national mine action centers, and that’s going to be the most effective way we have of ensuring that international contributions are really reaching the places it’s needed the most.
Moderator: Excellent, thank you. Well, I’m afraid we have a quiet group of journalists on this call, so perhaps I’ll just ask one more and if there are no other questions, we’ll wrap it up after that.
Obviously, for the programs you cover in Southeast Asia, there’s a lot of work and effort that goes into those, and it’s detailed in your report. But I was wondering if you could speak about perhaps some of the other countries in the region, in Southeast Asia or East Asia, that perhaps you may not have active programs — what the U.S. commitment is to unexploded ordnance clearance or landmine clearance for some of the countries perhaps that haven’t been mentioned so far.
Mr. Guilbert: Absolutely. I think the Philippines is a country that comes immediately to mind. Obviously, a lot of World War II-era unexploded ordnance remain in the Philippines. We don’t have an active conventional weapons destruction program there at the moment. We have had some assistance to them in the past. But I think that it’s important to remember that there are a lot of other efforts out there of enduring U.S. commitment beyond the Conventional Weapon Destruction Program that [inaudible] and UXO-related.
So, in the Philippines, for example, there’s very, very strong cooperation between the U.S. military and the Philippines military to ensure that the Philippines military has a very robust explosive ordnance disposal capacity. And our Department of Defense works with them to build that capacity. They do training exercises together and they work together to find out where are there areas of great need in the Philippines, and how can the United States military provide a train-and-equip effort that’s really going to help our partners there in the Philippines to address those problems themselves in the long term.
So, that’s a good example of one place where there is a very long, well-established, and enduring partnership between the United States and the host government, and it’s an ongoing display of our commitment to the region, really.
Moderator: Excellent, thank you very much. We will go ahead and wrap up the call here. I want to thank Jerry Guilbert, Chief of Programs for Weapons Removal and Abatement at the U.S. Department of State. And I also would like to thank those of you who were dialed in to this briefing. Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you very much.