Canada’s leadership role in putting in place the international treaty banning landmines in 1997 (known as the Ottawa Treaty) stood in clear contrast to its reluctant and half-hearted embrace of a similar effort to ban cluster munitions this year.
In negotiations started by Norway in 2006 and known as the “Oslo Process,” the Canadian government has appeared more intent on safeguarding its American interests than ending the carnage of cluster munitions. Writing in the Globe and Mail on May 22, Nobel laureate Jody Williams, the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, described Canada’s participation in the latest round of negotiations in Dublin, Ireland as “appear[ing] to be doing the dirty work for the United States to weaken the cluster munitions treaty.”
Since the early days of the Oslo Process Canada was recalcitrant. It initially chose to promote the consensus-driven, and largely ineffective, Convention on Conventional Weapons as the suitable forum for addressing the dangers of cluster munitions. After joining the Oslo Process, Canada aligned itself with a “like-minded” group of mostly European states that produce cluster munitions and that pushed to limit the scope of the treaty and exempt their arsenals.
Canada then said that there should be exceptions to the ban, and spoke of technical fixes that would presumably lower the “failure rate” of the submunitions. Canada’s next attempt at watering down the treaty came at the Wellington (New Zealand) round of negotiations in February. There, Canada proposed an “interoperability” exception that would allow party states, for a set number of years, to “assist” non-treaty states with the use of banned cluster munitions during joint military operations.
Throughout all this, Canada refused to declare a moratorium on the use, production and transfer of such weapons- a curious position for a country that does not manufacture, has never used, and has vowed to destroy its small stockpile of cluster munitions.
When the time came for the final terms and language of the treaty to be negotiated in Dublin, Canada had drawn a clear line in the sand on the issue of interoperability. It became clear that Canada, along with some NATO allies, would walk away from the negotiations if their interoperability concerns were not addressed.
This brought in Article 21 of the treaty, which states that “States Parties, their military personnel or nationals, may engage in military cooperation and operations with States not parties to this Convention that might engage in activities prohibited to a State party.”
Designed to provide legal protection for a signatory’s armed forces if another country uses cluster munitions during joint military operations, the article is vague on whether such assistance may extend to the deployment of cluster munitions. This prompted Human Rights Watch, which described Article 21 as the “treaty’s sole disappointment,” to urge governments “to make clear in official statements a ‘common understanding’ that the treaty does not allow deliberate assistance for the use of cluster munitions during joint operations and does not allow non-signatories to stockpile cluster munitions on the territory of signatory states.”
Canada’s persistent lack of enthusiasm for the treaty could not have been for the lack of evidence against the inhumanity of the weapon.
A cluster bomb dropped on Centre Block on Parliament Hill could reach in its spread the East Block, Senate, Supreme Court, Sparks Street pedestrian mall, Ottawa Visitors Center, and parts of the Wellington and Metcalfe thoroughfares. Such is the range and randomness of this weapon.
Made up of hundreds of ‘bomblets’ that scatter when a bomb is dropped, cluster bombs not only kill and injure civilians during attacks, but “continue to take life, limb and land from them long after the conflict has ended,” according to the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), a network of over 250 non-government organizations in 70 countries, including Canada, that called for a complete end to the use of these weapons.
A case in point is Southern Lebanon. Since the summer war of 2006, the UN estimated that of around four million cluster bomblets dropped by Israel during its war with Hezbollah, up to one million remained unexploded, “contaminating fields, schools, rivers and homes.” These have led to the death or maiming of nearly 200 civilians since the conclusion of the conflict.
The village of East Zaotar is a living testimony to the ongoing devastation of cluster munitions. Nearly two years after the end of the summer war, the village’s 4,000 inhabitants “continue to be terrorized by the presence of the bomblets,” its mayor, Riyadh Ismael, told me when I visited earlier this year. “Despite the clean-up efforts by the Lebanese army and the UN, a full one-third of our agricultural land is unusable,” he said. Ismael then showed me pictures of little Bilal Yassin, who lost his eye and suffered severe facial injuries, and 16-year-old Mohamad Mahdi who lost an arm, both due to post-conflict bomblet explosions.
“Cluster munitions are now the conventional weapons that pose the greatest danger to civilian populations,” says Washington-based Stephen Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch and co-chair of CMC. “Because a large number of submunitions fail to explode on impact, [they] remain armed and ready to detonate if disturbed, in essence functioning as anti-personnel landmines.”
The horrendous effects of cluster bombs on civilian populations were never denied by anyone. And, to be fair, the Canadian delegation worked diligently in Dublin to introduce language into the treaty that will offer real help for cluster bomb victims. The wording also makes provisions for financial and material assistance for clearance and destruction of cluster muni-tion remnants.
And, when all is said and done, the treaty was a major success in banning all forms of cluster bombs, and circumventing delays in implementing a ban. Goose declared “the treaty will make the world a safer place for millions of people… No nation will ever be able to use them again without provoking the immediate revulsion and disapproval of most countries in the world.”
Such treaties make the use of banned weapons politically prohibitive even among non-signatory states. This has been true in the case of landmines, where a sharp drop has been recorded in their use universally.
The success of the treaty aside, the role Canada played in the Oslo process remains curious and inconsistent with its traditionally strong position on humanitarian affairs. “Diplomats and observers alike are wondering what has happened to Canada’s independence,” Jody Williams reported from Dublin in May.
So do many Canadians.
Raja G. Khouri is a human rights advocate and a commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.