Moderator: Good morning everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m Zia Syed, the Asia Pacific Media Hub Director and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and the United States.
Today, we are very pleased to be joined from Washington DC by Jerry Guilbert, the Chief of Programs for Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the State Department. Mr. Guilbert will speak on the just-released 18th Edition of “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” a State Department report underscoring the accomplishments of the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction Program
The United States is the world’s single largest financial supporter of conventional weapons destruction, investing over $3.4 billion in more than 100 countries since 1993.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Mr. Guilbert, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
With that, I will turn it over to Mr. Guilbert.
Mr. Guilbert: Thanks, Zia. Good morning everyone, or good evening I guess, depending on where you are. Thanks for calling in today.
As Zia said, I just wanted to start off with some brief remarks and then we’ll turn it over to you for your questions.
Today, April 4th, we mark International Landmine Awareness Day in recognition of the great suffering that landmines and explosive remnants of war, or ERW as we say, 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 be releasing the 18th Edition of “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” the State Department’s annual report on U.S. conventional weapons destruction assistance efforts around the globe.
The Conventional Weapon Destruction Program improves international security through two main lines of effort. First, we have our small arms and light weapons threat reduction programs; and second we have our humanitarian mine action assistance efforts.
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 U.S. 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. 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 sites. Civilian populations living near minefields and ERW contaminated land face permanent injury or death simply by performing everyday activities such as 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; risk education for vulnerable populations living near contaminated areas; and assistance for landmine and ERW survivors.
Since 1993, the United States has provided more than $3.4 billion, with a B, $3.4 billion dollars in conventional weapons destruction assistance to over 100 countries. From 2018 alone, our conventional weapon destruction efforts helped 59 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 given the nature and origin of ERW contamination there. Since 1993, conventional weapon destruction assistance to the region has totaled over $528 million to clear unexploded ordnance, provide risk education to people living near unexploded ordnance so they know how to stay safe, helping survivors of ERW accidents recover from their wounds, and assisting our partner governments to build their own capacities to manage ERW threats in the long-term.
In 2018, conventional weapon destruction assistance for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands exceeded $50 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.
The initial State Department allocation for conventional weapons destruction worldwide in 2018 was $189 million. You can add to that more than $22 million in funding from USAID and Department of Defense efforts that complement State Department programming. Our top recipient countries in 2018 were Iraq, just over $40 million; Laos at about $31.75 million; Colombia at about $27.2 million; Afghanistan at about $20.2 million; and Vietnam about $12.6 million.
So with that initial background information, I’m now happy to open up the call and answer any questions that you may have. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Guilbert. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. As we’re waiting for reporters to ask their questions through the call-in line, let me go ahead and ask you a question, Mr. Guilbert, that we received in advance. We received a question from Dao Minh Tuan from the Hanoi Times in Vietnam. He wanted to know your assessment of how the unexploded ordnance removal projects in Vietnam are going.
Mr. Guilbert: Thanks for that. I would asses that unexploded ordnance removal projects in Vietnam are going quite well. I’d first like to start off by saying that our programming in Vietnam to remove unexploded ordnance, it’s not an assistance program, it’s a true partnership with the government of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. We work hand in hand with officials from Vietnam’s central leadership in Hanoi, all the way down to provincial and district levels. Since 1993, the United States has provided more than $119 million for these efforts. And in 2019, I’m pleased to announce that we’ll be providing an additional $2.5 million on top of last year’s level. So we’re actually going to be providing $15 million total in 2019 to address unexploded ordnance compared to $12.5 million for last year.
Our goals in Vietnam are really two-fold. First, we want to make sure that we’re clearing unexploded ordnance from high priority areas where we can achieve the greatest humanitarian impact. But second, we also want to make sure that we’re helping develop Vietnam’s own national capacity so that they’re equipped to deal with the challenges posed by residual UXO contamination well into the future.
We’ve been working very closely with the provincial government in Quang Tri, Vietnam’s most heavily contaminated province on a strategy to clear all known UXO hazards by 2025. This would make Quang Tri, which again was the most heavily contaminated province in Vietnam, free of the impact of UXO in just six years. I’m pleased to say that we’re actually on track to meet that goal as of right now.
Through the innovative survey methodology and strong coordination between demining operators and the provincial government, as well as a robust data management system, the Quang Tri model isn’t just a model for success for Vietnam and Southeast Asia. It’s really a model for success for the entire world. Something that we’re very proud to have worked cooperatively on with the Vietnamese.
We’re also working closely with the Vietnam National Mine Action Center in Hanoi, or VNMAC as it’s called, to build its information management unit and develop strategic plans. After three years of hard work from our partners in VNMAC and other international donors, Vietnam’s National Mine Action Decree was signed by Prime Minister Phuc in February that will allow VNMAC to fulfill its mandate. So again, it’s something that the United States is very proud to say that we’ve been a part of it and it’s something we’re very proud to continue supporting.
Moderator: Thank you.
We’ll next go to Phal Niseiy Sao from Thmay Thmey Media in Cambodia.
Media: Good morning, can you hear me?
Mr. Guilbert: Yes, good morning.
Media: I have two questions. First of all, I would like to know how much the U.S. has actually spent on Cambodian mine clearance actions. And second, Cambodia actually has a decent plan to meet the goal of achieving a mine-free Cambodia by [inaudible]. They are very committed to achieving this goal. Thank you so much.
Mr. Guilbert: Thanks a lot. Good questions.
We’ve been providing assistance to Cambodia for several years to help it deal with not only the legacy of unexploded ordnance in a lot of the eastern portions of the country that remain from the Vietnam conflict, but we’ve also been working closely with the Cambodian Mine Action Center and other international NGOs to clear landmine contamination in the western portion of the country, which is responsible for a large number of casualties as well.
Over the past several years, the United States has invested more than $140 million total for conventional weapon destruction programs in Cambodia. As I mentioned, that’s to clear unexploded ordnance as well as landmines. Beyond that, we’re also providing a lot of mine risk education to civilian populations that live near those contaminated lands so they know what to look out for when they’re going about their daily lives so they can avoid becoming victims of landmines and UXO.
Interestingly, I don’t know that a lot of people are aware that we’re also working with the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces to help them destroy some of their excess and unstable conventional ammunition, and helping them improve physical security and stockpile management practices to make sure that Cambodia’s ammunition depots aren’t vulnerable to unplanned detonations. One really unique aspect of this assistance to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces is that we’re partnering with the Cambodian Mine Action Center to actually harvest a lot of the explosives from those old conventional munitions, and we’re turning those into donor charges which we’re then providing to all of the humanitarian de-mining organizations in the country who are using that to clear landmines. So it’s really sort of a whole life cycle approach to doing munitions and landmines in Cambodia.
Moderator: Thank you.
We’ll next go to Thuan Nguyen from Zing.VN in Vietnam.
Media: I have two questions for you, sir. Yesterday or the day before, there were reports on Vietnamese media, about [a senior official from] the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs who said that Vietnam will need hundreds of years, and will need billions of U.S. dollars in order to clear all the landmines. So I just wanted to get your thoughts on that. Is the problem really that serious? And do we really need hundreds of years to clear all of the mines?
And secondly, a lot of casualties in the past, there have been tens of thousands of people who have died because of unexploded landmines. So what are the specific measures we have to prevent the casualties, prevent more people from dying?
Mr. Guilbert: Your first question, I also saw the media reports from a day or two ago talking about all the additional resources that would be needed to clear Vietnam.
One thing that I think it’s worth keeping in mind is that dealing with unexploded ordnance is really a long-term issue, and it’s difficult to be 100 percent certain that you’ve gotten every single piece of unexploded ordnance. At the same time, you can still have a very prosperous, safe society where people can go about their daily lives without fear. And I think if you look to places like Western Europe where today you still see reports of uncovering World War II era bombs in train stations in places like Frankfurt or London, these are countries that are also dealing with the long-term legacy of UXO. But they’re doing it safely and they’re doing it effectively.
So clearing UXO, clearing every last piece of UXO in Vietnam, that would be a very long-term effort. But the focus we have right now is clearing UXO in the most heavily contaminated provinces, and we’re focusing on the most dangerous type of unexploded ordnance which are those cluster submunitions that didn’t detonate when they were dropped. The data that we have shows that up to about 30 percent of cluster munitions actually didn’t detonate upon impact and they remain a danger to people even today.
The question you mentioned on findings, there’s been a lot of data on the most dangerous type of UXO out there, they’re very unstable, and unfortunately they’re also an attractive nuisance. A lot of children see them and they want to play with them. By focusing on cluster munitions, what we’re doing is we’re addressing that most dangerous type of UXO but we’re also finding a lot of other UXO in the area.
So in Quang Tri Province where we’re actually doing it is going village to village, going door to door and talking to all of the citizens in Quang Tri to find out if they have seen cluster munition contamination on their land. Have they had any experience with UXO on their land? We’re using the results of that survey to inform some more targeted clearance efforts so we can go out, and that’s how we’re going to make Quang Tri free from the impact of UXO by 2025.
So that’s not say we’re going to remove all of the UXO from Quang Tri, but we’re going to remove the UXO that poses the most grave threats today. But beyond that, given that UXO can really be a long term effort, and we’re working closely with the Vietnamese provincial military commands to help bolster their ability to deal with unexploded ordnance. As I mentioned, we’re also working at the national level with VNMAC to bolster the national capacity to deal with UXO in the out years.
It’s really also worth noting that among the hundred-plus countries that we have provided assistance to around the world on this, Vietnam is definitely at the very top of the list when it comes to putting its own national resources to the effort. And by far, the greatest number of clearance teams and the greatest amount of UXO are cleared by Vietnamese national demining teams funded by the government of Vietnam itself going forward.
So there are a lot of resources being put toward the problem as it is. Sustaining that effort is always a challenge, but it’s definitely something that Vietnam is committed to and the United States has been committed to for years, so we’re confident that by dealing with this problem a little bit at a time like we are in Quang Tri, we can achieve that long term goal.
In terms of your question on casualty statistics, I don’t have those numbers for Vietnam in front of me directly, unfortunately, but I can tell you in Quang Tri Province the casualty statistics have come down to like one casualty or no casualties per year for the past several years. Part of that is definitely linked to the clearance work that we’re doing; but part of it is also that mine risk education program that we’re providing so people know what to look out for when they’re going about their daily lives, how to stay safe. If they do find something, most importantly, they know who they can call to come take care of it, rather than trying to deal with it themselves, which is a really dangerous situation.
Moderator: Thank you very much.
Let’s go ahead and take a question from Mr. Ravi Buddhavarapu from REAL Republic in Singapore.
Media: Thank you. Good morning, sir. Thank you for the good work your department is doing around the world.
I have a two-part question. The first one is to do with North Korea. The Korean War is the “forgotten war,” as it is famously called in the U.S. It was a large-scale conflict and plenty of unexploded munitions must be there in North Korea. What efforts is your department taking, what efforts are you making? I guess because of the nature of the government and the nature of relations between the United States and North Korea, it’s a difficult thing. But what are you trying to do and what have you done so far? That’s number one.
Number two is during the World War, the Indian sub-continent was a huge theater. In fact it was the site of the turning point of the land battle between Japanese forces and the allied forces and Japanese and Axis forces. In let’s say Burma and Assam. Assam is a state in India, it’s a deeply forested state.
So are there any efforts at all being made to clear munitions there? I haven’t heard of a single effort so far. Thank you.
Mr. Guilbert: Thanks. Good questions both.
I preface the answer to both of those by noting that our assistance is based on requests that we receive from governments to help with a problem they’ve identified, and we’ve not received a request of assistance for demining from North Korea, or for that matter we haven’t received assistance requests form India either.
But I will say with respect to North Korea, of course we’re concerned about innocent civilian populations everywhere. There are some initial movements, toward demining on the Korean Peninsula. Over the past few months, I think starting in October, the government of South Vietnam and the North Korean government reached an accord to demine very limited portions of the Demilitarized Zone around the Joint Security area, the Panmunjom Truce Village as well as [inaudible] Hill as a peace gesture. The demining there, like I said, it’s very small scale.
The United States, through UN command, is very supportive of this joint current effort. Though we’re not directly involved in the effort itself, we are working through UN command to ensure that the parties who are conducting this work are able to do so safely, and do it to international standards.
Regarding the Indian subcontinent, we have not received requests for assistance in India. But we have limited engagement in Burma, starting about 2016. Even earlier than that, 2013. Over that time, we’ve invested about $8 million in programs that are providing assistance to survivors of landmines and UXO, as well as providing risk education.
One of the greatest challenges that we have with demining in Burma, has been their hesitance to allow a large-scale international NGO presence to access some of the more sensitive parts of the country, which is where a lot of the demining contamination is. In the world of humanitarian demining, it is largely international NGOs who are performing this work.
So, the lack of access has really hampered the international demining response from really taking root in Burma. We are aware that other governments such as the United Kingdom are also exploring opportunities to ramp up programming there.
Moderator: Thank you very much.
Lan Vu from Pho Balsa TV is in the question and answer queue. Lan is based in Orange County in the U.S. Lan, please go ahead.
Media: I have a few questions.
First, out of $200 million annually spending, how much is spending on Vietnam?
The second one is Quang Tri is the one province that you keep repeating. Which other provinces in Vietnam are contaminated that needs help to be clear?
And a third question is, which organizations in Vietnam are you working with for these ongoing projects? Thank you.
Mr. Guilbert: Great questions all.
Of the approximately $200 million a year that we have in annual programming, in 2018, about $12.5 million went to the UXO program in Vietnam. For 2019, Congress has earmarked $15 million. So that $2.5 million increase, will go towards our UXO program in Vietnam.
As you noted, Quang Tri has been our main line of effort in Vietnam, it being the most heavily contaminated province.
But there is contamination throughout the country, almost every province in Vietnam has some level of contamination. We’re seeing the greatest levels of contamination typically are in the central and southern provinces where there were the greatest number of land battles during the Vietnam conflict. Other provinces where we provided some UXO historically, currently we have a program that we’re partnering with the Japanese government on in Quang Binh Province. We also are supporting UXO clearance in Quang Nam Province as well.
One of the reasons that we are focusing so much on Quang Tri, beyond the [level of] contamination, is just how committed the provincial government is itself to do concurrent activities there, and they’ve been very open to try new methodologies and to try new technologies which has really allowed us to develop truly effective and efficient means for clearing as much ordnance as we possibly can with the resources that we have available.
We see autonomy of each of the provincial governments in Vietnam. We haven’t always had that same level of cooperation from other provincial governments. But like I said, contamination is pervasive throughout the countries.
In terms of what organizations we’re partnering with to do clearance work there. We worked a lot with an organization called PeaceTrees Vietnam. A U.S.-based non-governmental organization that has a very large presence in Quang Tri, and they’re very well-known there and [trusted] partners of the Quang Tri provincial government. So we provide a great deal of support to them. Large international NGOs who we fund to work in Vietnam are Norwegian People’s Aid, as well as the Mines Advisory Group. We also do some work with the Vietnam Veterans Association Foundation and we have provided some victims assistance programming through Catholic Relief Services and those sorts of organizations.
Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Guilbert.
If I can I will use my moderator position to ask you one final question, and that is to do with Laos. If you could, please talk about the program we have in Laos. I know it’s a big part of what we do in Southeast Asia, and that’s one country we haven’t talked about much so far in this call.
Mr. Guilbert: Absolutely. Laos, I think as most people are aware, or maybe not, on a per capita basis was the most heavily bombed country on the face of the earth. From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos during U.S. military operations to disrupt the North Vietnamese military supply routes.
Unfortunately, today, the full extent and impact of unexploded ordnance elimination in Laos is not known. We know that it’s very, very heavily contaminated. We know they have a high civilian casualty rate. But we still don’t know exactly where all of that contamination exists because, until now, there’s never been a full nationwide survey to try and pinpoint those exact contaminated areas.
In September 2016, the United States announced a plan to invest $90 million over a three-year period, which was essentially doubling the amount of assistance we had been providing on a yearly basis up to that point, to provide that $90 million over a three-year period with the idea of really kick-starting that whole largescale national survey. Of that $90 million, $45 million would go toward that survey effort starting off in Laos’ six most heavily contaminated provinces, and the remaining $45 would be used to conduct clearance operations as the survey progressed. So it’s not as though we are conducting a survey and there’s no clearance taking place. What we want to make sure that we’re doing is that as the survey is finding explosive hazard areas, we have clearance teams who are operating right behind those survey teams to go in and clear the land where that’s being found.
In 2018, we’re pleased to say that the appropriation Congress provided, out of the $30 million earmarked, allowed the United States to fully meet that $90 million deliverable that we had originally announced. And in 2019, above and beyond the initial $90 million that was pledged, I’m pleased to say that in 2019, Congress has appropriated an additional $30 million to deal with UXO contamination in Laos which brings our four-year commitment from 2016 to 2019, up to $120 million.
We continue to fund a lot of different operators in Laos and we work with three main international NGOs to conduct a lot of the survey activity on the ground, the Norwegian People’s Aid, the Mines Advisory Group, and The Halo Trust. But we also partner very closely with the government of Laos’ own national demining operator which is called UXO Laos, as well as Laos’ national regulatory authority which is responsible for overseeing, coordinating UXO clearance efforts across the country.
All told, our funding supports [and] employs about 900 Laos citizens who are working for the NGOs as well as an additional 630 or so Laotian citizens who are working for UXO Laos. So, the benefits of the Conventional Weapons Destruction Program aren’t just clearing land. We’re also providing direct employment for 1,600 Laotian citizens who are also directly benefiting from this as they work to clear their own country and make their countrymen safe from these hazards.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I’m afraid we’ve just about run out of time. I do want to mention a couple of last items though. One is the report that we’ve been talking about, the 18th Edition of “To Walk the Earth in Safety” which was released today, we will be sending that out to all of you who are on this call shortly.
Second of all, please stay on the line as the AT&T operator will tell you about how to get an audio recording, a replay of this call.
With that I want to thank Jerry Guilbert, the Chief of Programs for Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs today for joining us, and I really want to thank all of you as well, all the callers, for participating.
Thank you very much, Mr. Guilbert. Thank you very much to the callers.