A Lethal Legacy: the human costs of cluster bombs and the politics surrounding adoption and ratification of an international treaty to ban the “merciless bomblets” that continue to inflict unmitigated pain and suffering in seemingly dormant war zones. Also exploring Canada’s influence in advancing the Convention on Cluster Munitions and assessing whether the federal government’s pending legislation to ratify the treaty is adequate.
Mike Blanchfield, pictured here with Joan Travers, is the international affairs writer for The Canadian Press based in Ottawa. Blanchfield has been a journalist on Parliament Hill since 1998. His reporting has taken him across the world, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked at the Ottawa Citizen for 22 years to 2009, and covered courts and police for eight years. He has graduated Carleton University twice, with his B.J. (hons) in 1987 and his M.J. in 2015.
Norway and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are raising concerns about pending legislation from the Harper government that would make Canada a full member of a treaty to ban deadly cluster bombs.
GENEVA – The last day of Ahmad Mokaled’s short life dawned on a sunny spring February morning in the southern Lebanon town of Nabatieh.
VIENTIANE, Laos – The scale of contamination by cluster bombs here is staggering. Laos has a simple plea for Canada: please send us more money.
June 24, 2013 - Cluster bomb survivors in Laos fight for the future
June 25, 2013 - Kids learn to avoid unexploded Vietnam War bombs in Laos
SARAVAN, Laos – The 30 students in Ondomxai Dom’s Grade 1 class sit transfixed by the story she is reading of a boy and his father who happen upon a big piece of black iron while wading through a rice paddy.
MARKNOWNAY, Laos – Shadowed by a dense green and brown jungle canopy, Phakhai Keo methodically guides her metal detector across a thick carpet of grass, leaf and vine until a loud squeal cuts the still of the forest like a machete.
GENEVA – The roar of a MiG fighter jet streaking somewhere above Anas Marwah’s car was deafening. Then came the ear-splitting crack of the plane breaking the sound barrier. And then, almost as suddenly, it was over
Even in the heyday of well-resourced Canadian foreign reporting, when Jim Travers and his contemporaries were circling the globe to bring little pieces of it back to their country’s readers, the journalism fellowship now named in his honour would have been a godsend to reporters like me trapped in their cubicles back home.
In the current economic climate, the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding is even more so.
I tell people that worst thing about winning the 2013 fellowship was that it flew by so quickly.
That didn’t make the experience any less valuable for me. More importantly, it has had a journalistic and public policy impact that has resonated long after I claimed my last piece of luggage in the Ottawa airport after my last trip.
I wrote about cluster bombs. When I told people about my topic, even after I’d won the fellowship, the inevitable jokes came: Cluster F—? What the #*^%$?
In case you¹re wondering: cluster bombs are, in the words of one of its victims that I was able to interview in a European capital – a man I never would have met had I not won the fellowship – a “dirty weapon.”
Cluster bombs are a distant cousin of sorts of the anti-personnel landmine; they lay dormant for decades after they are fired, and they are a great attraction to young children in post-conflict countries who have lost eyes, arms, hands and legs to them.
The man who called it a “dirty weapon” lost his young son on his fifth birthday when he picked up a brightly coloured bomblet in a park in southern Lebanon. I met him in Geneva, at a major international conference on the topic.
That’s a tip: like I said, the time flies on this fellowship, but I was able to do a huge amount of one-stop shopping by attending what some people call a “talkfest.” Official proceedings of all sorts can be boring, but even though I completely backgrounded myself on this subject to meet the onerous requirement to win this fellowship, I learned even more in this environment. In the corridors of this conference, amid the clack and whir of walkers and wheelchairs of its many delegates – victims of this weapon – I found worthwhile stories that could be written from that dateline, about the lethal living legacy of cluster bombs. As well,
I found key contacts that could help me plan next moves, an important consideration when managing such a great opportunity.
It became clear that I probably had a yearlong project, but I only had two months, so I stayed focused on my original plan: follow the human impact of the story to Southeast Asia.
The country most saturated with cluster bombs on the planet, per capita, is Laos. People – that means innocent civilians, peasant farmers and their children – are still dying regularly there, four decades after the United States carpet-bombed the country during the Vietnam War.
I travelled into the jungles of southern Laos, along the old Ho Chi Minh trail, to document first hand the efforts to rid this scourge from the landscape. I had my government minder nearby, but more or less disinterested, as I interviewed subsistence farmers and their elders.
This smart young man in his early 20s seemed more interested in a road trip out of his cubicle in the country’s capital, so he didn’t impede me at all. Overall, there was a fair amount of bureaucracy to deal with, and things moved slowly but the job got done.
My minder wasn’t the only person I went into the jungle with. Paul Chiasson, my Canadian Press colleague, joined me in Laos for those three weeks, at my employer’s expense. Paul is an award-winning photographer and a student of documentary filmmaking. So, he also knows a good story.
We’d worked extremely well together in the past, and after I won the fellowship, he sent me congratulations and asked if I needed a videographer and photographer.
I told him, the more the merrier, but his boss would have to pay the freight. He did.
So that’s another great thing about the Travers Fellowship – it gets people out of their cubicles who didn’t actually win it and inspires their bosses to spend thousands more to help tell a good story.
Paul oversaw the creation of four short videos that, in total, amounted to a short, powerful documentary. He was a partner in helping me tell the stories, and his presence freed me up to concentrate on my chosen craft – writing.
A key journalistic underpinning of this project was the fact that Canada signed a United Nations treaty to ban landmines in the 1990s but was nowhere to be seen on the ratification of a new UN convention to ban cluster bombs.
After my series of stories ran their course, I followed this ratification process back home on Parliament Hill. I covered House of Commons committee hearings on the topic almost gavel to gavel over the course of several months. When I told people what I was going to cover on any given day, and said “cluster bombs,” these people nodded knowingly.
As for impact, how about this: my first story in Laos was about how Canada had stopped funding the demining sector in Laos. By year’s end, Canada contributed $1 million directly to Laos, allocating the money in trusteeship to two of the main international organizations that I’d reported on, and followed with an additional $10 million for the sector.
That was a measurable impact I never could have imagined when I conceived this project.
To this day, Canada still hasn’t ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions. So now, mindful how I got here, my reporting continues – from my cubicle.
(In March 2015, several months after Mike Blanchfield wrote this note, Canada ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Read Blanchfield’s story about that here).