In a culture wired for instant results, we often forget that meaningful change may take persistent action over a long period. This is a 35-year story of education and advocacy arising from the bomb-laden fields of Laos. Titus Peachey who, with his wife Linda Gehman Peachey, went to Laos on a Mennonite Central Committee assignment in 1980, tells the story in three parts.
It was early in 1981 when we received a clear call to education and advocacy via a simple request from a Lao farmer. The day before Linda’s visit to his home, his wife had been killed when her hoe struck a U.S. cluster bomb buried in their garden. Handing Linda the shattered hoehead, the farmer said, “Please take this back to America and tell ourstory so that it won’t happen again.” On that sad day, how could we know that 27 years later nearly 100 countries would gather in Oslo, Norway to sign a treaty banning cluster bombs?
This story of international advocacy begins at a meeting of The Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects. Simply stated, it is a gathering of nations to discuss the rules of war. For warfare to be considered just, it may not be fought without restriction, and must be fought in a way that discriminates between military targets and civilian populations.
It is at the gatherings of this group at the UN Headquarters in Geneva, that a small group of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) began advocating for restrictions, and then an outright ban on the production and use of cluster munitions.
I attended several of these meetings on behalf of MCC. In 2001, after a colleague, Virgil Wiebe and I gave a presentation on the dreadful impact of cluster munitions in Laos, I discovered what a strange place it was for a pacifist to be. During the Q & A period, a Pentagon official raised his hand and asked: “If cluster bombs are so bad and have such terrible effects, what kind of bombs should we use?” Clearly the parameters of the discussion in the room were radically different from my MCC environment! It was an awkward moment. I began to wonder if there was a meaningful role for me or my pacifist voice in that setting.
Thankfully the experienced landmine ban campaigners persisted, and in 2007 Norway announced that it would initiate a separate negotiation process to ban the production, use, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. What followed was a remarkable series of six meetings over a period of nearly two years.
It was amazing to watch the engagement of civil society in research, education, lobbying and active participation with their government counterparts. Handicap International gathered together survivors of cluster bomb accidents from around the world and provided training in advocacy. Several dozen survivors attended each of the gatherings, arriving on wheel chairs, walking with crutches or being led by guides. They made powerful appeals to the assembled delegates for a complete ban on cluster munitions, as they described the impact of these weapons on their lives and communities.
In 2008, the international treaty banning cluster munitions was signed in Oslo, Norway by nearly 100 countries. Major holdouts still include the United States, Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan and India.
Nearly 30 years after Linda’s encounter with the family that had lost their mother/wife to a cluster bomb in northern Laos, the first meeting to discuss implementation of the treaty was held in Vientiane in 2010. As 1,000 people gathered from around the world it was truly a celebratory moment. Yet the morning newspaper brought a grim reminder of the task ahead, as the front page carried the story of Pui, a young school girl who had been killed by a cluster bomb the day before. Would the U.S. government ever commit significant resources to clear the lethal bombs it had left behind in Laos? That was the task that awaited Legacies of War.
How do you give voice to values that are grounded in deeply held faith commitments in settings where these values and commitments are not understood or operative?
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Look for Part Three next month!