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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Balking at the cluster bomb ban

ADVOCATES for disarmament are declaring a “major milestone” after a global treaty banning the use of cluster bombs was ratified this week, meaning the long-awaited agreement covering the deadly weapons will take effect within six months.

But the news also casts a spotlight on Cambodia, which has so far held back from signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions despite having taken a leadership role in the international debate.

The convention was pushed forward Tuesday after a 30th country officially ratified the international agreement. It means that the treaty will enter into effect August 1, explicitly prohibiting all use of deadly cluster munitions and banning countries from producing, transferring or stockpiling the weapons.

Steve Goose, the arms division director at Human Rights Watch, said he was pleased by the “extraordinarily rapid pace” in which countries have supported the convention. “It shows the international community is unified in its conviction that this is a weapon that should not be used,” he said.

But Goose said he was “disappointed” that Cambodia and neighbouring Thailand still have not come on board.

“At the beginning of the diplomatic process, Cambodia was one of the more outspoken countries, saying that cluster munitions are like land mines,” Goose said. “They were one of the key spokespeople in trying to move the thing forward.”

However, Cambodia surprised observers when the convention was opened for countries to sign during a December 2008 meeting in Norway.

Though it declared “full support” for the convention, Cambodia was not among the more than 100 countries that signed on.

“Due to the recent security development, Cambodia now needs more time to study the impacts of the convention on its security capability and national defence,” Hor Nambora, Cambodia’s ambassador to the UK, said in a statement on December 4, 2008.

A Cambodian official said Wednesday that the government still intends to sign on to the convention “as soon as possible”.

“It’s the will of the government to sign,” said Prak Sokhon, secretary of state at the Council of Ministers and vice president of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. “We would like to send a clear message that Cambodia doesn’t want to have such kinds of bombs.”

Prak Sokhon downplayed suggestions that authorities were reluctant to dismantle its cluster munitions if neighbouring Thailand, which disarmament observers believe possesses the weapons, doesn’t follow suit.

“Vietnam and Thailand are not signatories of the cluster munitions convention. But even if those two countries do not sign, Cambodia is still willing,” said Prak Sokhon, who said authorities must also examine what it has to do to abide by the strict language of the convention before agreeing to its terms.

“Signing the cluster munitions convention right now will firstly affect our defence capacity, but at the same time it would put us in a very difficult situation,” he said.

In Southeast Asia, the only countries to sign on to the convention have been Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos, which is believed to be the most heavily contaminated country for cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions are seen as particularly controversial weapons because of the residual damage they leave behind. Like land mines, unexploded cluster munitions can lie dormant for years before being unearthed, causing severe injury and death years after they are deployed.

“Cluster munitions are huge bombs which contain about 1,000 small bomblets inside,” said Sister Denise Coghlan of Jesuit Refugee Service, who has worked extensively on anti-land mine campaigns. “What happens is that once you drop one, the bomblets are exploded over the area the size of a football field.

“The theory is that they all go off. They explode on impact, and there’s no further damage. But this is completely not true.”

Unexploded cluster munitions in Cambodia are primarily the result of the US military’s secretive Vietnam-era bombing campaign in the Kingdom between 1969 and 1973, according to a 2007 analysis by the group Handicap International.

Between 1.3 and 7.8 million bomblets remained unexploded, the report said.

Many of the bomblets still pose a risk, particularly to children who stumble upon the deadly weapons.

“Cluster munitions are deadly,” said Jamie Franklin, country programme manager for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which has two explosive-ordnance disposal teams working in the eastern part of the country where the munitions are concentrated.

The tennis ball-sized devices most commonly found in areas MAG covers are deadly, containing explosives surrounded by a shrapnel casings designed to explode, fragment and injure.

Their wide blast radius means a single piece of ordnance often results in multiple casualties.

“People still do get injured,” Franklin said. “Over the last few years, casualties from [unexploded ordnance] are about to take over land-mine casualties on an annual basis.”

Over a six-month period last year, a MAG team in Stung Treng reported that 90 percent of the ordnance it cleared were cluster munitions, Franklin said.

UXO remains a threat
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Wednesday that millions of Cambodian families remain threatened by land mines and unexploded ordnance, with 670 square kilometres still believed to be contaminated.

“Thousands of families are directly and indirectly exposed to the constant threats posed by the hazardous remnants of war,” Hun Sen said during a ceremony to receive demining equipment from the Japanese government.
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Independent UN expert warns of threat of mass deportations from Thailand

A large number of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos face the threat of deportation from Thailand if the Government goes ahead with its nationality verification process, an independent United Nations human rights expert warned today.

A large number of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos face the threat of deportation from Thailand if the Government goes ahead with its nationality verification process, an independent United Nations human rights expert warned today.

In January, the Thai Cabinet passed a resolution allowing for a two-year extension of work permits for approximately 1.3 million migrants provided that they were willing to submit biographical information to their home governments prior to 28 February 2010.

However, migrants who fail to do so by this deadline risk deportation after the 28 February deadline.

Jorge A. Bustamante, the UN expert on the human rights of migrants, noted in a news release that carrying out the verification process in its current form places many documented and undocumented migrant workers at risk after 28 February.

"I am disappointed that that the Government of Thailand has not responded to my letters expressing calls for restraint," said the expert, who reports to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

"I reiterate my earlier messages to the Government to reconsider its actions and decisions, and to abide by international instruments," he added. "If pursued, the threats of mass expulsion will result in unprecedented human suffering and will definitely breach fundamental human rights obligations."

Mr. Bustamante called on Thailand to respect the principle of "non-refoulement," noting that among the groups who may potentially be deported are some who may be in need international protection and should not be returned to the country of origin.

Like all UN human rights experts, Mr. Bustamante works in an independent and unpaid capacity.

Source: UN News
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Local Cambodian family loses son and house in fire

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

Sean Phuong mourns his son, Patrick Soeun, who died in a garage fire on Feb. 5. (Photo by James Tabafunda/NWAW)

It was dark that Monday evening. The usual silence on Feb. 1 was about to be interrupted at the intersection of Fifth Avenue South and South Trenton Street in Seattle.

By 10:30 p.m., Sean Phuong, a refugee from the Battambang province of Cambodia, found his TV set destroyed, and he says that is not what’s important.

He and his wife, Sody Soeun, lost their house that night to a major fire, one that spread quickly from their two-door garage to their attic. They still don’t know what caused the fire, and an investigation is underway.

Their son, Prackserth “Patrick” Soeun, didn’t make it out of the house in time and died inside their garage. He was just a few weeks away from celebrating his 18th birthday in March. All that’s left are a few pictures of him, some taken inside the family’s Buddhist temple.

Phuong says his family never got to see or touch Patrick’s face. Patrick’s remains were completely wrapped before they were removed from the garage.

After the King County Medical Examiner’s office conducted an autopsy and a search of dental records, it confirmed on Feb. 5 that the remains were those of Phuong’s 17-year-old son.

Phuong says if he could change places with his son, he would instantly do so. That way, his son could further his education in college. He was 6 feet tall, shy, and smart, and he received good grades in math. He also had a talent for drawing cartoons and was excellent at using the computer.

“For three days and three nights, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat,” Phuong admitted. “In my brain, a million thoughts would come up. My heart beat slowly.”

Phuong believes that his son has reincarnated into a new life and all the gifts Patrick gave at his temple have now transferred back to him. He wants everyone to know that Patrick was a very good son, one who respected his family and never talked back to his parents.

“There was a loud bang as if someone had dropped a piece of furniture,” he said about the moment before he and five other family members escaped their burning house.

Jackie Schwendeman, who lives across the street, was the first to see the flames and ran over to pound on their front door. “She said, ‘Get out! Get out!’” said Channy Soeun, 9, one of Phuong’s two daughters. His other daughter, Sophary Soeun, is 21 and has two children.

Sody Soeun says she thought everyone in her family was able to get out of the house. She remembers those who made it out safely wore just the clothes they had on and without shoes.

The surviving family members, including Patrick’s 88-year-old grandfather Phann Phuong, now temporarily live with Sody’s brother. Sody is not working at this time.

Because of the current recession, Phuong says he will take any job that he finds. “I need to work. That’s what I need right now.”

He and his family emigrated to the United States in 1984 and moved into their South Park-district house in 1996 when Patrick was just four years old.

Donations of clothes have started to come in, but each family member is still in need of more clothing and shoes. They are also in critical need of personal hygiene products, underwear, and kitchen items. The Wat Sahak Khemararam Buddhist Association’s temple at 824 South 100th Street is accepting these donations.

Other drop-off locations include Pean Meas Video, off Martin Luther King Way, and the White Center Donut shop.

Members of the local Cambodian community have created a Bank of America account under Sean Phuong’s name, and all of its branches are now accepting cash donations to help with Patrick’s funeral expenses.

“I am very touched by all the compassion, generosity, and the kindness from the community,” said Phuong. “All of these were from people I know and didn’t know. I received compassion from the Khmer community as well as from non-Khmer communities.”

Many Uch, a Khmer community member who has known Phuong and his family since 1983 when they lived in refugee camps, said, “Sean’s been good to our family. He’s been good to the community.”

Uch cited Phuong’s willingness to play music with his band at a fundraising event for Cambodia at a pool hall.

“To me, that’s what a community should be, close-knit,” said Uch. “When a tragedy like this happens, we just need to step up and help out. Contribution-wise, even if it’s little, it’s so important.” ♦

James Tabafunda can be reached at

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