A member of a UN mine-clearing unit carries unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs in this Sept. 5, 2006, file photo. These cluster bombs were dropped in Lebanon by Israeli forces during their conflict with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. CNS photo/Peter Andrews, Reuters

Canada turns blind eye to cluster bomb treaty

  • May 16, 2012

Banning cluster bombs but then allowing Canadian pilots to drop them, Canadian soldiers to transport them and Canadian commanding officers to order them into the battlefield makes no sense, says the man who negotiated Canada’s participation in the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Former arms treaty negotiator Earl Turcotte, who led Canada’s effort to negotiate the Convention on Cluster Munitions, is warning Canada has misrepresented its signature on the 2010 treaty by proposing enabling legislation with very wide exceptions.

“It certainly, I think, misrepresents the position that we and other like-minded countries took during the negotiations,” Turcotte told The Catholic Register. “I expect Canada is going to get raked over the coals, and deservedly so at this point.”

Canada signed the international treaty in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 3, 2008 — one of the first nations to do so. It took until April 26 for the government to table legislation that would ratify that signature. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs media relations staff it took more than three years because “Canadian officials needed to finalize the necessary documentation for cabinet’s decision.”

For the sake of interoperability with American forces, the enabling legislation allows Canadian commanders on joint operations with U.S. forces to order American soldiers to use cluster bombs, allows Canadian pilots on secondment with American forces to drop cluster bombs, allows Canadian forces to transport the weapons into the field of battle. While most of the 111 countries that have ratified the treaty have banned investment in companies that produce cluster bombs, Canada has not. The enabling legislation also does not ban transport of cluster munitions through Canadian airspace or territory.

When Turcotte learned the contents of the bill he quit his job with foreign affairs to dedicate his time to persuading Parliament to seriously revise Bill S-10. Turcotte and the NGO Mines Action Canada have launched a petition asking Parliament to “make it clear that no Canadian should ever be involved in the use of cluster munitions for any reason, anywhere, at any time, for anyone.”

Banning cluster bombs, which have killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of civilians and very few soldiers, has been a cause close to the Vatican’s heart. The Holy See was part of a core group of countries that steered the Oslo process which produced the treaty — a role Canada had assumed a decade earlier with the anti-personnel land mines treaty.

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken several times about the immorality of cluster bombs. When the Convention entered into force in 2010, Benedict exhorted all states to comply with the treaty.

“The international community has demonstrated wisdom, foresight and the capacity to pursue a meaningful result in the field of disarmament and international human rights,” he said Aug. 1, 2010. “The logic of peace is stronger than the logic of war, which in every case must have as an insurmountable limit the protection and preservation of the civil population and particularly the most vulnerable people.”

“The moral issue is that if you’ve got a ban, a complete ban, and you’ve signed a treaty that says you support the concept of a complete ban, then how can you morally justify coming back and say ‘Yes, we ban this, but...’ ” said Mines Action Canada executive director Paul Hannon. “You can’t have it both ways. It’s morally ambiguous. You want to ban something and you want to help somebody use it.”

The exceptions in Bill S-10 are based on Article 21 of the Convention — an article that Turcotte himself wrote. Article 21 was intended to allow NATO countries to continue to work with U.S. forces. The United States, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, China and Russia are the major non-signatory states.

“The scope of the exceptions was very narrow,” said John Seibert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an ecumenical think tank on defence and disarmament issues.

“This is a wide open door... It really defeats the primary purpose of the treaty.”

“The Prohibiting Cluster Munitions Act fully implements Canada’s commitments to the Convention, and strikes a good balance between humanitarian obligations while preserving our national security and defence interests,” the foreign affairs media department told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “Canada’s position is based on Canada’s own humanitarian and security and defence requirements.”

The media lines from the government are illogical, according to Turcotte.

“This makes no military sense and no moral sense,” he said. “Whether it’s a sin of commission or a sin of omission, when one is using a weapon with full knowledge that it is going to cause extensive collateral damage both at the time of use and also post-conflict because of the high dud rate, then as far as I’m concerned that’s an abrogation of our responsibilities under military law, let alone humanitarian law.”

One academic study found that 98 per cent of all recorded casualties from cluster munitions have been civilians. The Geneva Conventions require soldiers to ensure civilians are not targeted, said Turcotte.

Asked whether cluster munitions are immoral, foreign affairs answered: “They have been used in approximately 34 countries and territories to date, often with devastating impact on civilians due to their wide-area effect and to sub-munitions failing to explode.”

Hannon believes the Department of National Defence never wanted the treaty and won out in interdepartmental lobbying over the enabling legislation.

“Then they just got carried away and started saying not only would clusters be allowed to be used but we would assist in using them. I think they’re playing, they’re twisting around legal definitions and creating a legal pretzel,” Hannon said.

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