Cluster bombs, like hidden land mines, kill or maim innocent civilians for decades after they are deployed. Tens of millions of them are still strewn across the lands of various countries where conflict has occurred. Often we hear of a child or a farmer accidentally stepping on one of them and losing his lower limbs or his life. Most countries including Canada quite rightly want these weapons banned, with existing stocks destroyed as soon as possible.
Regrettably, Canada’s current position on cluster munitions is flawed. While Canada is in the process of ratifying the convention banning cluster munitions, it has left an important loophole in its adherence to the convention: the ban does not extend to Canadian soldiers in joint operations with countries that use cluster bombs. On the one hand the government proudly tells Canadians that it has never used its existing cluster bomb arsenal and that it is currently disposing of it; on the other hand, it could willingly participate in a future conflict where one of its allies still uses such weapons.
Simply stated, what Canada is not telling Canadians is that it does not rule out the possibility of conducting joint military operations with an ally who has not signed the convention and then decides to use its own cluster munitions. This raises an important moral question. How is that not tantamount to Canada condoning the use of these weapons? In fact, recognizing that it is caught in a contradiction, the government is pushing through legislation in Parliament (Bill C-6) that specifically provides clauses to exonerate Canadian soldiers who might be involved in joint operations decisions with another country that decides to use cluster munitions.
As it stands, the United States and a few other potential allies have not ratified the convention, believing that cluster bombs remain a useful and legitimate weapon. Canada could be involved in future joint operations with one or more of these allies. How can Canada guarantee that cluster munitions won’t be used in joint operations involving Canadian troops? The answer is that it can’t if it’s working with allies who have these weapons and who have not ratified the convention.
As we know, Canada has also ratified the convention against the use of land mines and this time without any loopholes or escape clauses in its legislation. Canada in fact launched the process to ban landmines in the 1990s, a fact that was recognized in naming the agreement the “Ottawa Treaty.” The treaty was ratified under a Liberal government, and Lloyd Axworthy was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing about the ban.
Why should it be any different for cluster bombs? The answer lies in the fact that the United States, Canada’s principal ally, while not having ratified the convention banning land mines, has signified to its allies that it will no longer use them. This has presumably allowed Canada to feel comfortable that the United States will not deploy any land mines in any future joint operations with Canada. The same unstated intention not to use a particular weapon does not apply in the case of cluster munitions.
In the end, you can’t have it both ways. You’re either against cluster bombs or you’re not. If you’re against them, you should not fight alongside an ally that might still use them unless that ally specifically undertakes not to use them while conducting joint operations with you. Canada’s main ally, the United States, still holds significant stocks of cluster munitions. Rather than create a loophole in its legislation dealing with cluster munitions, Canada should clearly state that it will continue to be a strong ally but will only participate in joint operations with other countries in specific cases where those countries clearly renounce the option of using cluster bombs during those specific joint operations. That is the only way to ensure that Canada adopts a morally and logically consistent approach to banning cluster munitions.
In the meantime, Canada should also actively lobby for the total elimination of cluster munitions among nations that still maintain stocks for future possible use. It’s the right thing to do.
Marc Garneau is the Liberal foreign affairs critic and Member of Parliament for Westmount–Ville-Marie.