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The Toronto Star

Canada Should Lead Call For Ban on Cluster Bombs

Deadly Bomblets Can Kill Civilians Long After Conflict Ends

Haroon Siddiqui

Here's an idea for Stéphane Dion, Gilles Duceppe or Jack Layton — ideally, all three — to adopt. If they did, they would force Stephen Harper's hand and help us win worldwide kudos.Canada should lead what is a growing movement to ban cluster bombs.

These Cold War-era weapons burst open in mid-air and scatter smaller sub-munitions over a wide area, killing or maiming civilians in two ways: on impact or, in the case of the "duds" that do not explode, much later when detonated by unsuspecting civilians.

The anti-cluster bomb campaign is a natural for Canada. We helped forge the 1997 anti-land mines treaty, which has since led to the destruction of 40 million stockpiled land mines in about 80 countries.

Cluster bombs can be even more dangerous.

They are inaccurate, making it difficult for those using them to distinguish between military targets and civilians. And given their "dud" rate of about 25 per cent, they create a field of bomblets, which act as land mines.

Cluster bombs have left a trail of death and destruction in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (1960s and 70s); Lebanon (1982); Kuwait (1991); Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001-02), Iraq (2003), Lebanon (2006), and elsewhere.

Last summer, Israel was estimated to have dropped enough cluster bombs to scatter about 4 million bomblets in southern Lebanon. That prompted an outcry from UN agencies and human rights groups, as well as a complaint in Washington that Israel may have violated bilateral agreements prohibiting the use of U.S.-made bombs in populated areas.

The UN Mine Action Co-ordination Centre, Southern Lebanon has identified 864 cluster bomb locations over 34 million square metres, containing an estimated 1 million unexploded cluster munitions. It reports 30 fatalities and 191 injuries, so far.

Bill Graham, former foreign minister and an authority on international law, said in an interview that cluster bombs, which are "proven sleeper killers of civilians," are objectionable for the same reasons as land mines. "Yet those who deploy them take no responsibility."

The UN Convention on Conventional Weapons does not regulate cluster bombs, just as it did not control land mines, which is why Canada helped negotiate the anti-mines treaty.


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Human Rights Watch, the highly respected New York-based group which shared the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the anti-land mines initiative, is now campaigning against cluster bombs, along with the London-based Cluster Munitions Coalition. The latter is a group of 200 non-governmental organizations worldwide, including the Ottawa-based Mines Action Canada.

The European Parliament has already called for a moratorium on the use, production and transfer of cluster ammunitions until an international agreement is reached.

Parliamentary initiatives are also underway in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and even the United States.

Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to prohibit or limit the use of such bombs by the U.S., which has a stockpile of 1 billion submunitions, and deployed 295,000 in Kosovo, 248,000 in Afghanistan and about 2 million in Iraq. Cluster bombs have been the single biggest cause of death and injuries in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a meeting Feb. 21 in Oslo of 49 interested countries, 46 signed a declaration calling for a ban by next year. Canada supported that call, and is already destroying some of its stockpile of cluster munitions.

Yet, inexplicably, the Stephen Harper government's position "remains elusive," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch in Washington, over the phone. "They will not support a total ban, even though Canada has never used cluster bombs. But they have not said what they will support."

Ottawa seems to be somewhere in between the American position (no ban at all) and the British position (ban old cluster bombs but not the newer variety, which is said to be more accurate). Both countries also want the issue resolved through the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) process.

Paul Hannon, director of Mines Action Canada (itself a coalition of 38 Canadian NGOs), feels the Harper government — "a lot more cautious in international affairs than the previous government" — is torn between the CCW route or forging a new treaty. "But CCW is of no value. It works by consensus. If one state does not agree, it goes nowhere."

Hannon, however, has found an ally in Alberta Tory MP Brian Storseth, who believes in the need for a new treaty and is hosting a meeting on the issue on Parliament Hill on Tuesday.

"About 50 MPs from all parties have said they'd come," reports Hannon from Ottawa. "That's more MPs than we had when we started the campaign against land mines." Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday and Sunday.

© 2007 The Toronto Star

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