A team of U.S. civilian experts are preparing to travel to Papua New Guinea's Autonomous Region of Bougainville, where they will partner with local authorities to find and to safely clear unexploded ordnance left over from some of the fiercest fighting of the final years of the Second World War.
In a response to a request from the government of Papua New Guinea, I traveled with a small group of State and Defense Department colleagues to Bougainville's Torokina District back in June 2009 to make an initial assessment for the project. As villagers guided us through remote, now heavily forested areas of the island, it was hard to believe this was once a battlefield until we began discovering piles of rusted ammunition, unexploded shells, and at least 100 sites littered with live mortar and artillery rounds.
More than 60 years later, these abandoned and unexploded munitions continue to have a significant impact on the island, limiting community development and preventing its citizens from raising cocoa trees and other crops. Some of these unstable abandoned explosives have caused deaths and serious injuries over the years, and ammunition has been scavenged from Torokina for use by militant groups and criminals in the region.
Following that initial trip, PM/WRA dispatched our Quick Reaction Force -- a group of civilian conventional weapons experts -- to work with local officials to survey the area to find and prioritize locations for clearance so that more land can be returned to productive use quickly and efficiently for area residents. We expect the Quick Reaction Force to begin clearance operations, in cooperation with the government of Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Government of Bougainville, early this year.
Like our well-known efforts under the U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action program to help post-conflict nations safely clear landmines and unexploded ordnance, the State Department's Conventional Weapons Destruction program has helped make the United States a global leader in efforts to mitigate the illicit trafficking and potentially destabilizing influence of excess small arms, light weapons, and munitions in dozens of countries around the world, as detailed in our annual report on humanitarian demining and conventional arms and munitions destruction, "To Walk the Earth in Safety."
The Quick Reaction Force is a key component of our effort to work with U.S. embassies around the world to promote peace and security. Since 2001, we have worked closely with our partners at the Department of Defense's Defense Threat Reduction Agency to help countries safely dispose of more than 1.3 million weapons and approximately 50,000 tons of munitions worldwide. Elsewhere, the team has helped numerous countries to secure aging stockpiles of conventional arms and munitions which, if stored improperly, could potentially threaten surrounding communities or become a target for criminals or terrorists seeking to steal military hardware.
My visit to Torokina was a sobering reminder that if improperly addressed, the consequences of conflict can continue to linger even decades after hostilities end. Through Conventional Weapons Destruction and Humanitarian Mine Action, the United States is committed to working with countries to surmount these challenges, offering new hope and opportunity for their citizens.