See here for the April 5 Fact Sheet on “U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction Programs in Southeast Asia;” and see here for the full text of the 20th Edition of “To Walk the Earth in Safety” report which was released on April 5.
Moderator: Thank you. Good day, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I’d like to welcome our participants dialing in for this briefing.
Today, we are pleased to be joined from Washington, D.C. by Jerry Guilbert, the Chief of Programs for Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the Department of State. We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Mr. Guilbert. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.
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 so much, Zia, and good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. I just wanted to start off with some brief remarks and then turn it over to you for your questions.
The United States is extremely pleased today to release the 20th edition of To Walk the Earth in Safety, which is the State Department’s annual report on the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance around the globe. This report highlights the latest chapter in the United States’ enduring commitment to protecting civilians, promoting peace and stability in conflict-afflicted communities, creating economic opportunity, and building strong and vibrant partners around the world.
The Conventional Weapons Destruction program tackles some of the most pressing dangers that civilians trying to recover from conflict continue to face today. Landmines, unexploded ordnance – or UXO, as we call it – and other explosive remnants of war can linger for decades after the fighting has stopped. Civilian populations near minefields face permanent injury or death simply by performing everyday activities like playing or walking to work. These explosive hazards can also prevent humanitarian workers from delivering badly needed aid, or prevent repairs to critical infrastructure like hospitals and clean water pipelines.
In other places, large stockpiles of degraded ammunition may explode without warning. And as we unfortunately saw just last month in Equatorial Guinea, this can have devastating consequences when those stockpiles are near civilian communities. Beyond that, terrorists, drug traffickers, and insurgents can exploit poorly secured weapons stockpiles to obtain the weapons, guns, and ammunition they need to continue terrorizing communities.
The U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction program addresses these challenges head-on. When it comes to landmines and UXO, we’re funding projects to pinpoint contaminated land, mark and clear explosive hazards, teach people living near these deadly dangers how to stay safe as they go about their day-to-day lives, and even assisting survivors of UXO and landmine accidents with prosthetics, vocational training, and psychosocial support. And we’re helping our partner governments to also secure vulnerable weapons stockpiles, destroy degraded ammunition, and move munitions depots away from civilian population centers to safer, more secure areas.
For more than 25 years, no one has done more than the United States of America to protect civilians from these deadly dangers. Since 1993, we’ve provided more than $4 billion in Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance to over 100 countries. And in 2020 alone, about $259 million worth of Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance helped 49 countries to advance themselves toward more stable and prosperous futures.
Our humanitarian mine action efforts in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands have always been particularly important to us, given the nature and origin of UXO contamination there. Four and a half decades after the end of the Vietnam war, UXO is still injuring and killing civilians in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. And World War II-era ammunition continues to wash up on the beaches and in the lagoons of island nations throughout the Pacific.
To Walk the Earth in Safety highlights the United States’ commitment to helping countries of the Asia-Pacific overcome these difficult legacies of war. Since 1993, the United States has provided more than $665 million in Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance to help countries across the region clear unexploded ordnance, teach people living near UXO to know how to stay safe, help survivors of landmine and UXO accidents recover from their wounds, and build the capacity of our partner governments to manage UXO and landmine threats in the long term.
The United States wants nothing more than safe, peaceful, and prosperous partners across the Asia-Pacific, and the Conventional Weapons Destruction program is a key demonstration of that commitment. Beyond the direct impact that our Conventional Weapons Destruction programs have through our humanitarian demining and munitions stockpile work, it’s also making a difference in other important ways as well.
Across the globe, women face stereotypes and barriers to performing many of the jobs traditionally held by men. Our implementing partners are changing this, employing women as deminers, weapons stockpile experts, and managers. In the process, they’re also changing viewpoints by demonstrating clearly that communities are safer and stronger when women participate in all aspects of peace and security.
To Walk the Earth in Safety highlights five remarkable women and their own contributions to improving peace and security in our “Improving Lives through CWD Assistance” segments. They’re truly incredible stories of people making a real difference, and they’re just a few examples of the tremendous work being done by women all over the world in the face of trying circumstances and, in many cases, great personal danger.
This year’s report is packed with great information, facts, and figures on our Conventional Weapons Destruction program, not just in the Asia Pacific but around the globe. There is obviously quite a bit more material in there than we can cover here today, and I hope you’ll give it the time that you have to read it closely.
And with that said, I’m happy to take your questions. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Guilbert. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. While we wait for journalists to join the question-and-answer queue, let me go ahead – actually, I take it back. I was about to ask you one of the pre-received questions, but it looks like we do have someone who’s ready to ask a question.
If we could go ahead and open the phone line for An Pham from Zing News in Vietnam.
Question: Good morning, everyone. I am An Pham from Zing News. I have two questions. The first: Could you tell us what have been the most significant achievements in efforts of [reducing] explosive ordnance in Vietnam so far, please? And the second: What are the main difficulties of the tasks that are taking place in Vietnam? Thank you.
Mr. Guilbert: Thank you for that. Those are two excellent questions. And I do want to start with the positive by highlighting the tremendous strides that we have made in Vietnam over the years. The Government of Vietnam has been a tremendous partner for the United States when it comes to addressing legacies of war, not just, obviously, the unexploded ordnance issue, but also the issues of those who’ve been missing in action since the conflict ended, as well as dioxin and Agent Orange.
Turning to UXO specifically, Vietnam has made tremendous strides over the years. And I think one of the greatest accomplishments that we can point to collectively, the central government in Hanoi, governments at the provincial level, and here, the U.S. Government, along with the NGO implementers with whom we work in the field, is the fact that there have been no deaths from unexploded ordnance in Quang Tri Province for the past couple of years. Quang Tri, as you may know, was the most heavily contaminated by UXO in all of Vietnam, laying along the former demilitarized zone. It was very, very heavily bombed, with lots of unexploded ordnance there over the years.
Working closely with the Quang Tri provincial government as well as the central government in Hanoi, we’ve made tremendous strides there. The Quang Tri provincial government has been very forward-leaning in pioneering a lot of new and innovative technologies and techniques for addressing UXO. And right now, we’re actually on track to making Quang Tri free from the impact of UXO, which means it’s no longer a humanitarian threat for all intents and purposes, by the end of 2025.
And again, when you look at the fact that Quang Tri was the most heavily contaminated by UXO just a few years ago, with casualties regularly occurring, the fact that that goal is in sight and that the end is almost within our reach is really a tremendous success story for the people of Vietnam and the Government of the United States.
In terms of challenges, unexploded ordnance is a challenge that unfortunately is going to be with us for a long time. And it’s going to be something that Vietnam is going to have to deal with in the long term. And by that, I mean let’s look at some examples in Europe, for instance, after World War I. Every now and again you still find unexploded ordnance in France or in London that remains from World War I and World War II. Here in the United States, as a matter of fact, they just found a piece of unexploded ordnance not far from where I live left over from the American Civil War, which was over 150 years ago. So unexploded ordnance is going to be an issue that’s going to have to be dealt with for a long time.
In coming up with long-term mitigation plans for making sure that people can stay safe while living with what is going to be a long-term problem, that is going to be the big challenge going forward. But, like I said, there is good news. Progress is being made, and Quang Tri is a real concrete example of that progress. It is within our grasp to solve the program. It’s just a matter of committing the resources, committing the effort, and really drumming up support from the people to make it a priority.
Moderator: Thank you very much. While we wait for others to ask questions, Mr. Guilbert, if it’s okay, I’m going to ask you one that we received in advance. We received a question from Phal Niseiy Sao from Cambodianess, who asks, “Cambodia has been one of the most affected countries by mines and unexploded ordnances. The country is committed to clearing all anti-personnel landmines by 2025, which is four years from now. Do you think Cambodia will be able to achieve its goal? And what has the U.S. administration been doing or plan to do to support Cambodia’s effort to make its goal a reality?” Please go ahead.
Mr. Guilbert: Thanks. Cambodia certainly does face a lot of challenges when it comes to the threats posed by landmines and unexploded ordnance as a result of several conflicts that took place across the country.
In the east, of course, you have a lot of unexploded ordnance that remains, much of it of U.S. origin from the Vietnam War, and we are working very closely with the Cambodian Mine Action Center – CMAC – as well as other NGO implementing partners like the Mines Advisory Group and Norwegian People’s Aid to address that UXO contamination in the east.
We’re working to create a comprehensive survey so we understand the full universe of UXO contamination in the east, so we know exactly where the contamination is located and we can work with CMAC and the Cambodian Government to prioritize clearance assets. So we know where there’s, for example, contamination that’s in close proximity to a village or a school. We can prioritize our clearance work in those areas to really focus where UXO is posing the greatest threat to civilians so we can do our best to mitigate the risks that additional casualties happen in that area. And that’s an ongoing effort that the United States is certainly committed to in the long term.
The western side of Cambodia – you have large legacy mine fields that were laid by the Khmer Rouge, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, as well as the Vietnamese and the Thai militaries. Very dense mine fields with anti-personnel landmines and anti-vehicle mines.
The United States is also committed to clearing these humanitarian hazards, as well, working very closely with our – again, our NGO implementing partners – the HALO Trust, Mines Advisory Group, the Norwegian People’s Aid, as well as the Cambodian Mine Action Center – to address contamination in the west along the K-5 mine belt and [inaudible].
The United States has been very active providing assistance to Cambodia to address these legacies of war. Since 1993, we’ve provided more than $167 million in Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance to clear those deadly hazards throughout the country.
This year, we’re on track, once again, to provide at least $7 million in additional de-mining assistance, again both in the east and west and it’s something that we’re committed to helping the Cambodian people overcome this deadly legacy.
In terms of the goal of becoming mine-free by 2025, it’s certainly going to be a challenge. A lot of landmines and ammunition remains in the country. The good news is Cambodia absolutely has the technical skills, the right people, and the right technologies in place to accomplish it by 2025. Really, it comes down to a matter of resources – international donor funding as well as resources committed by the Government of Cambodia itself. And I think that’s where they’re some questions on whether or not the resources are going to be enough to complete the job within that timeframe.
But like I said, either way, on whether it happens in 2025 or after, the United States is very, very interested in helping the Cambodian people deal with these deadly legacies
Moderator: Thank you again. I’m going to go ahead and ask one more question that came in in advance, and this was from Masakatsu Ota from Kyodo News in Japan, kind of piggy-backing off what you were just talking about there, which is, “What kind of multilateral mechanisms are there for your program, the Conventional Weapons Destruction program, with regards to financial and technical collaboration with other nations? And if they exist, can you please elaborate on them; and if not, could you tell us maybe your initial ideas in how to promote your program and your work with allies and partners?”
Mr. Guilbert: Absolutely. That’s a great question. There are actually several multilateral mechanisms that we collaborate with other nations on when it comes to Conventional Weapons Destruction and humanitarian mine action.
When it comes to other donor countries, obviously, the United States is the largest donor out there. We provide more funding for humanitarian mine action than any other country, but that’s about 30 percent, give or take, of total global contributions. So, there are a lot of other countries that do contribute to mine action. All of those countries come together in what’s known as the Mine Action Support Group where donor governments get together, they discuss what the most pressing challenges of the current day are, what pressing emergencies we may be facing around the globe, be it in places like Iraq, where you have massive IED contamination that was left behind by ISIS, or if you’re looking toward Yemen, where we think there is going to be, obviously, a great need for clearing landmines and UXO once peace conditions are permissive for that work to take place. The Mine Action Support Group brings together donor countries from around the world to discuss how we can better pool resources in order to tackle some of the thorniest problems that face mine action today.
On the recipient side, those countries that receive mine action assistance and are affected by unexploded ordnance and landmine contamination, the UN Mine Action Service, or UNMAS, is really, really good at pulling countries that need help together, assessing their needs, and then communicating with the donor community to discuss what global needs are.
The UN Mine Action Service also every year convenes a global conference where all affected countries who suffer from UXO and landmine contamination gather with all of the donor countries, along with all of the NGOs and contractors and other international organizations that are active in humanitarian mine action. It’s called the National Directors Meeting for Humanitarian Mine Action. And as I said, it usually takes place every year in February. This year’s conference, unfortunately, was delayed due to the COVID pandemic and it’s going to take place virtually in May. And again, that’s a forum where donor countries can speak directly with countries that need assistance, and everybody can speak with the implementers who are doing this good work in the field and have one big conversation under one roof, again, about what the challenges are, what the opportunities are, what new technologies are emerging that may be of benefit to the sector, and as well as what the common challenges are that affect all of us regardless of what country you are from.
So, there are several good multilateral fora that are in place specifically to help coordinate mine action and make sure that the best technologies, the newest developments, and common challenges are addressed holistically and that we aren’t dealing with these things by themselves and that we can benefit from the knowledge that everybody has to bring to the table on this.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next, if we could go to Melo Acuna from Asia Pacific Daily in the Philippines. Melo, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you and good morning from Manila. I’m just as interested as anybody else. I’d like to find out if this program for weapons removal has gained support from other Asian countries and how does Mr. Jerry Guilbert look at the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific region, where there seems to be some tension building up because of what’s going on at the South China Sea. Thank you.
Mr. Guilbert: Yes, thank you for that. We have a lot of support from governments within the ASEAN region when it comes to Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance. We have a very close relationship, as I said, with the Government of Vietnam, earlier. We work very closely with them on advancing Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance programs throughout Vietnam. We’ve also worked closely with the Cambodian Mine Action Center, who shared some of its expertise with other regional governments that deal with UXO contamination.
Interestingly enough, we also work very closely with the Solomon Islands. Over the years, we’ve partnered with the Government of Australia to create a Special Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit within the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to address UXO contamination that citizens in Solomon Islands come across. So they created a hotline. So when citizens do come across this unexploded ordnance contamination, then they know who to call. And the Royal Solomon Islands Police will respond and take care of that. But they’ve developed a very capable explosive ordnance disposal capability, and they have actually partnered with other Pacific Island nations to sort of export their own expertise to those island governments as well.
So, we’ve really been successful in not only building capacity of a lot of the partner governments with whom we work in the region, but in turn those partner governments are taking that capacity that we’ve helped develop and they’re providing their own assistance to other governments in the region with that. And that’s really a true success story for us. That’s the kind of thing that we’d like to see continue on. As I said, the United States is deeply committed to a peaceful, prosperous and stable Asia-Pacific region, and doing what we can with our Conventional Weapons Destruction program to advance those goals is really what our goal is here at the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement all along.
Moderator: Thank you. Perhaps before we wrap up the call here, maybe you could talk about a couple of other countries that we’ve received some questions on. We received a question from Ade Marboen from the Antra News Agency in Jakarta, Indonesia, asking about any work that may be going on in Indonesia, because there is still unexploded ordnance that they find.
And then separately, one country that I know there’s been a lot of focus on with your program that we haven’t addressed too much today is the work that you’re doing in Laos. Perhaps you can talk about those two issues?
Mr. Guilbert: Yes, sure. I think if you look at Indonesia, we don’t have an active program there at the moment. I think the good news for Indonesia is they have a pretty robust capacity for explosive ordnance disposal as it is, within their national government. So, that’s the good news is they have the expertise that they need and the tools that they need to address a lot of UXO issues on their own.
That said, there are always gaps and challenges. I would say that this unexploded ordnance turning up from time to time in the field, that certainly is an issue. And like I mentioned with some of the challenges in Vietnam specifically, that’s going to be a challenge in a lot of countries going forward.
Part of the issue that we have to look at is what kind of response is necessary when you’re talking about unexploded ordnance contamination. In many instances, UXO does not pose a threat to people on a regular day-to-day basis. And while UXO may be found, it’s not necessarily a very common occurrence. In cases like that, and I point to, like, France and Germany, even the United States, like I mentioned, it’s not necessary to have an ongoing proactive humanitarian mine action program where you’re proactively searching for unexploded ordnance because it’s not posing a major threat to civilians on a day-to-day basis.
But having a robust capacity like in the Solomon Islands, where if people find something, they know who to call and report it to, and they can be confident that local authorities will come out and take care of it, that is an entirely appropriate response in a lot of countries where UXO may be present, but not in a large concentration.
Laos is kind of on the other end of that spectrum. Laos is very heavily contaminated with unexploded ordnance, and much of it is of U.S. origin dating back to the Vietnam War. All provinces in Laos have some extent of cluster munitions contamination or other types of unexploded ordnance or landmine contamination that remains from the Vietnam War.
There, unexploded ordnance does pose a very real threat to people on a day-to-day basis; and unfortunately, casualties in Laos are not an uncommon occurrence. The United States is deeply committed to helping the people of Laos overcome this deadly legacy of war. You may recall back in 2016, then-President Obama visited Laos and he committed the United States to providing $90 million in UXO assistance over the next three years. We met that goal in 2019, but that doesn’t mean that our assistance has stopped. In fact, it’s increased. We provided
$30 million a year for three years in line with that prior commitment, but in 2020 we actually increased our contributions in Laos. We’re on track to have spent about $37.5 million in Laos through the end of last fiscal year.
So there’s clearly a lot of work that remains to be done there, but the United States is deeply committed to helping the people of Laos overcome these deadly legacies as we work to continue finding UXO, mapping it out, identifying where it poses the greatest threat to civilians, and then clearing those threats, while at the same time we continue to work with the Government of Laos to build its own capacity, again, to deal with these challenges in the long term.
Moderator: Excellent. Thank you very much. As we’re just about out of time here, we’re going to go ahead and wrap up the call. Do you have any final remarks for us?
Mr. Guilbert: Zia, thanks, for hosting this call. I’d like to thank everybody who participated on the call. The United States, like I said, is deeply committed to Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance. Landmines, UXO, IEDs, as well as poorly secured munitions stockpiles are a real barrier to peace, prosperity, and stability in untold countries across the world, and addressing these problems is really one of the key aspects to building stable, strong, prosperous countries with vibrant economies and vibrant democracies. So, the United States is committed to Conventional Weapons Destruction assistance as one of the most visible and tangible aspects of its commitment on this front.
So, thank you very much for hosting the call, and it was definitely a pleasure to speak with everyone today. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Jerry Guilbert, the Chief of Programs for Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in the Department of State, and I also would like to thank all of you for participating in this briefing today. 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.