Invisible agents of destruction: Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance

Written by Vittoria Cateni

Cambodia, a land in Southeast Asia, has a particularly troubled history, ranging from the breakdown of the Angkor empire to French colonialism, and finally the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime. As the country strives to move past beyond its past, the legacies of those events continue to hinder its opportunity for development. 

One of the biggest problems that the country currently faces is unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam war and civil war, between the 1960s and 1990s. 

First, despite Cambodia being a neutral country during the Vietnam war, Vietnamese troops continued to move supplies across Cambodia’s borders. Perhaps, due to its impartiality and military weakness, the country was as a “safe haven” for North Vietnamese groups to direct their operations. In an effort to disrupt those supply lines, in 1969 former president Richard Nixon ordered the US Air Force to conduct a secret carpet bombing campaign in Eastern Cambodia. Experts estimate that the United States dropped more than 2.7 million tons of bombs on the country, of which at least 26 million were cluster munitions, containing many sub-bombs, which when dropped, spread around a wider area before exploding. However, approximately a third of those explosives failed to explode upon landing, becoming de facto land mines that pose an ever-present risk of detonation.

Second, as the civil war between the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the Khmer Rouge unfolded, many landmines were planted around the country. Particularly, along the 750-kilometre Thai border, known as the deadly K5 mine belt. Landmines in these areas were planted to deter the Khmer Rouge into entering Cambodia again.

These unexploded munitions represent a critical problem for Cambodia’s development. The country has the highest number of amputees per capita in the world, and claims some of the highest global numbers of deaths per year from exploded ordinance, with most victims being children. Those who suffer injuries caused by exploded ordinance are often unable to work and earn wages, creating conditions of extreme poverty within the countryside. People continue to live in fear, as maps locating unexploded ordnance are often incomplete. Moreover, the presence of mines within the soil can make entire pieces of land uncultivable. In a country like Cambodia, where agricultural activities remain the main source of income for many Cambodians living in rural areas, this has created enormous problems. These include: environmental contamination of land due to munitions-related chemicals leaking into soil and groundwater; a lack of people willing to cultivate the land; and wealthy landownersoften lying about the risk of unexploded ordinance, increasing the risk of their workers falling victim to injuries and even death.

Besides unexploded ordnance, Cambodia also continues to face the devastating effects of Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide that was sprayed during the Vietnam war by the US Airforce with the aim of defoliating forests, and uncovering Vietcong bases. By the end of the war, the United States had sprayed more than 20 million gallons of the herbicide. Similarly to the carpet bombings, the chemical was not only sprayed on Vietnam, but also on Cambodia and Laos, as part of the Ho Chi Mihn trail. Consequently, land became uncultivable, and the general environmental consequences were disastrous. Notably, Agent Orange also contains dioxin, a highly toxic chemical which remains in the environment long after it has been sprayed. The substance rapidly polluted lakes, crops, and the air, causing serious health issues to Cambodians and returning US servicemen and their families. Not only were the current generations affected, but many of their children too were born with malformations, cancer and heart problems. 

These “invisible agents of destruction” continue to haunt the country’s development to this day, with severe economic, social, and human implications. In response to the disastrous effects of Agent Orange, and other uses of chemical weapons around the world, most states have joined together to ban these weapons of mass destruction . In 1993, 193 states signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, in which they agreed, for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons, including the use ofherbicides as a method of warfare.

Similarly, the Convention on Cluster Munitions of 2008, which prohibits the use, stockpiling and production of cluster munitions, has been signed by 124 states, determined to end the suffering and casualties caused by cluster munitions. However, despite Cambodia still suffering from the effects of US inflicted unexploded cluster bombs, the United States, along with other important military powers, such as China and Russia, are not party to the convention, significantly hindering the convention’s chances for success. 

In fact, since July 2023, the United States has been supplying Ukraine with cluster munitions, at the request of president Zelensky, despite widespread criticism due to their use carrying a heightened threat of civilian casualties and long-term threat to civilians who inadvertently trigger unexploded bombs. According to a Human Rights Watch investigation, Russia has been using cluster munitions since the start of the conflict. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s efforts to retaliate can endanger its own population even more. Amongst the critical voices is Hun Sen, current prime minister of Cambodia, who has urged the United States and Ukraine to refrain from using such weapons, as they will “continue to claim civilian victims for up to a hundred years.” More than fifty years have passed since the United States’ invasion of Cambodia, and cluster munitions continue to claim lives of civilians. It is essential to recognize how the long-term dangers of those weapons can outweigh their short-term benefits.

Edited by Maurice Wedner-Ross, Artwork by Vittoria Amanti