Canada must reject cluster bomb

Share by Raja G. Khouri. May 19th, 2008.


Photo: Lebanese woman admits Israeli military destruction in south Lebanon 2006.

A cluster bomb dropped on Centre Block on Parliament Hill could also 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 the 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 is calling for a complete end to the use of these weapons.

Such is the case in south 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. Twenty months 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.”

Peculiar then that Canada, which led the world in putting in place the international treaty banning landmines in 1997, has only reluctantly and half-heartedly embraced a similar effort, led by Norway, to ban the use of cluster munitions by the end of 2008.

At first, Canada promoted 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 has pushed to limit the scope of the treaty and exempt their arsenals.

Canada has said that there should be exceptions to the ban, and spoken of technical fixes that would presumably lower the “failure rate” of the submunitions. But Lebanon has shown us that low failure rates in pristine testing conditions cannot be achieved under combat conditions. The Israeli M85 “self-destructing” submunition had a failure rate of 10 per cent in south Lebanon, rather than the advertised 1 per cent.

Canada’s latest attempt to water down a treaty banning the use of cluster munitions came at the last round of negotiations in Wellington (New Zealand) in February. There, perhaps with an eye to please our southerly neighbours who have refused to join the Oslo Process, Canada proposed an “interoperability” exception. It 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.

Such attempts clearly do not help bring about an end to the humanitarian cost of cluster munitions.

To this day, Canada refuses 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. Paul Hannon, director of Mines Action Canada, finds the government’s stand “even more peculiar given that several of our allies have [already] declared moratoriums or bans including Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway.”

With over 100 countries preparing to negotiate the final terms and language of the treaty in Dublin, Ireland this month, Canada has an opportunity to put itself back on the right side of history by endorsing a comprehensive ban on cluster munitions. “Canada should play a leading role,” says Goose. “In part because it is consistent with its strong position on humanitarian affairs … but also because of the effect its leadership will have internationally.”

This means Canada must reject exemptions of certain weapons from the treaty, the insertion of a transition period postponing the ban for later years as well as interoperability exceptions. “Those kinds of revisions will [to the treaty] only undermine the intended purpose of the ban, which is to save lives,” emphasizes Goose.

If the daily terror experienced by the people of East Zaotar is to be avoided elsewhere, a total ban on the use of cluster munitions cannot come soon enough.

Raja G. Khouri is a member of the Toronto Committee of Human Rights Watch. He is also a commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

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