‘A Bottomless Pit’
The Solomon Islands has pleaded with the U.S. and Japan for help with the deadly UXO problem since it gained independence from the U.K. in 1978. As recently as 1984, the U.S. Ambassador to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands Virgina Shafer, said she was surprised to hear the Solomons was having problems with leftover unexploded ordnance. She insisted the U.S. government was not aware of the situation.
But the problem, even 40 years ago, was very real.
Long-time weapons disposal technician and Vietnam War veteran Allan Vosburgh came across unexploded bombs in the South Pacific in the late 1980s, when he was sent to the Solomon Islands to help dispose of chemical weapons found in the Russell Islands, near Guadalcanal.
The Ewa Beach resident is now CEO of Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, which trained the Solomon Islands police bomb squad from 2012 to 2018. Vosburgh has traveled extensively throughout the South Pacific region, many times on missions to recover U.S. soldiers’ remains in the ’80s.
Stumbling across bombs in his search for bones and dogtags during those trips was inevitable.
“I would run across this stuff and I’d say, ‘Hey, can we come back and get rid of this? You know, it’s U.S. stuff,’” Vosburgh says.
Projectiles were not his superiors’ priority though. “They would always say no, because they didn’t want to suggest that they were taking responsibility. Because that’s a bottomless pit.”
The Japanese government has also conducted extensive recovery missions for dead soldiers. In the 1980s, the Japanese took the same position on UXO as the Americans, Vosburgh says — not their responsibility.
By the early 1990s, a burgeoning movement against the use of land mines throughout the world was gaining international recognition, leading to the formation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, now a collection more than 100 non-governmental organizations focused on remediating the remnants of wars that still kill disproportionate numbers of civilians worldwide.
In 1997, with the help of people like Princess Diana and countless international celebrities, the NGO succeeded in gaining an international agreement, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention sometimes called the Ottawa Convention or Mine Ban Treaty. Now, 164 nations are party to the convention, their signatures indicating their intention to destroy their land mine stockpiles, stop producing them and work to remove them from current and former war zones.
Since the Ottawa Convention was implemented, more than $12 billion has been pumped into addressing UXO worldwide, specifically land mines. The money predominantly comes from the U.S., Japan, Germany, France and the European Union.
The land mine cleanup has amounted to roughly $500 million a year since 1997, distributed throughout the world, although in 2020 most of it was sent to Iraq, Laos, Colombia and Afghanistan.
The Solomon Islands has received very little money and now the global dollar amount is steadily declining, according to Mary Wareham, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch’s arms division.
The U.S. – like Russia and China – still won’t sign either the anti-land mine treaty or the Oslo Convention, a separate international ban on cluster munitions. The U.S. believes the mines are necessary in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which contains more than 1 million land mines, to protect its allies in South Korea from aggression from the North.
President Joe Biden indicated in June that the government would realign itself more closely with the anti-land mine Ottawa Convention, which is a promising sign, Wareham says. The U.S. has yet to take action on the international convention to ban cluster munitions, the Oslo Treaty.
The Solomon Islands is party to the Ottawa Convention. And while it has leftover bombs it has no known land mines or cluster munitions, so it does not explicitly qualify for aid from the United Nations Mine Action Service – an arm of the UN formed after the Ottawa Convention was ratified – like Afghanistan and Iraq or the more than 58 other countries contaminated with land mines do.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines publishes an annual report called the Landmine Monitor. According to the Monitor, aid for the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations affected by WWII, barely registers. Most of the financial help goes to nations affected by more recent wars, such as in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, nations with a UXO problem can attend annual meetings, typically in Geneva, Switzerland, where they can advocate for themselves within the substantial international mine-action community. Some nations with similar problems to the Solomon Islands have developed relationships with UXO outfits that have sought funding on their behalf and succeeded in getting money to clear their land.
But the Solomon Islands has rarely attended a meeting since it signed on to the Ottawa Convention more than 20 years ago. In fact, treaty participant lists show that no Pacific nation with a WWII UXO problem has officially participated in an Ottawa Convention meeting in the past five years.
“It’s very, very, very rare that you see Solomons diplomats participating in treaty meetings, unfortunately,” Wareham of Human Rights Watch says. “It helps if you have mine-action NGOs who are going to go the distance and try and raise funds and help to establish their presence.”
In an interview with Civil Beat, Karen Galokale, permanent secretary for the Solomon Islands Ministry of Police, National Security and Correctional Services, said Solomon Islands officials don’t understand how the international mine community works. They didn’t know they could get help through the Ottawa Convention, she said.
“It was just the way that we treated UXO. We didn’t really commit a lot of time to finding out ways that we can raise our voice,” Galokale says.
It’s also too expensive for the cash-strapped Pacific nation to send a delegation to Geneva every year, she says. Galokale has been to the international meetings twice, but only with sponsorship from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining.
The U.S. has given the Solomon Islands $6.8 million to deal with its UXO issue since 2011, a fraction of what it has given to other countries where the battles have been waged much more recently.
Japan has predominantly given aid to the Solomons through infrastructure projects, such as building roads or improving airports, which may also coincidentally include UXO clearance. It recently donated $766,000 worth of trucks and specialized machinery to the police bomb squad, along with money for awareness campaigns.
“It’s a crumb,” says Wareham of Human Rights Watch. “It’s a speck of sand on a very big beach.”
The U.S. decision to start funding UXO-related work in the Solomons came during the administration of President Barack Obama. Leon Panetta, who had been director of the CIA, took over as Secretary of Defense in 2011.
He says the money that was beginning to flow to the Solomon Islands was a “smart investment” at the time, given the administration’s geopolitical shift toward the region.
But, he told Civil Beat in a recent interview, getting help from the U.S. to address UXO or land mine issues has largely been a “hit or miss process,” and one that typically took place as part of recovery missions for dead soldiers.
“It’s not at the top of the list. You know, it’s not a weapon system. It’s not a new procurement of some kind. It’s not something that has political appeal,” Panetta says.
That could be changing. The security pact China recently signed with the Solomon Islands prompted the U.S. to rekindle relationships it has taken for granted.
Recently, the U.S has committed to setting up embassies in the Solomon Islands as well as Kiribati and Tonga, where China also has been making political inroads.
Fundamentally, the UXO issue in the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations is a national security issue for the U.S., Panetta says. Framing it as such may galvanize lawmakers into action.
In the fiscal year 2023 budget, which took effect Oct. 1, the House Appropriations Committee set aside $264 million for “conventional weapons destruction programs,” directing money to several nations including $80 million for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
But there is no money allocated for any Pacific nation.
“Frankly, in order for any of this to happen, it takes money,” Panetta says.
He believes money will need to be earmarked for the Solomon Islands and the Pacific, or it will continue to go to other countries.