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The Ottawa Citizen

The Carnage of Cluster Munitions

Chris Cobb

There are few sadder experiences than coming face-to-face with a young person crippled by a landmine or its more insidious cousin, the cluster bomb.

It's the nature of developing societies, where life is grueling enough with two arms and two legs, that these children and young adults have not only lost limbs but in a split, blinding second have had their entire futures blown apart. And for what? Innocently playing games, or gathering firewood in a place where long-departed soldiers or some passing bomber had years ago deposited a deadly legacy.

Cluster bombs are notoriously inaccurate and indiscriminate munitions that scatter toy-like bomblets over wide areas. The bomblets have a high failure rate and can lie dormant but deadly for years. Unlike landmines, which are relatively predictable, cluster bomblets can be detonated not just by touch but also by slight movement of the ground around them.

It's heartening news that in Dublin at the end of last week, diplomats and civil society groups representing 111 countries, including Canada, reached an agreement to ban cluster bombs and 'adopted' an international treaty -- the first step towards formal ratification. When 30 countries have ratified, it becomes international law.

The treaty will be signed in the Norwegian capital Oslo in early December and is modeled on the Ottawa Treaty, the landmark agreement to ban anti-personnel landmines signed more than a decade ago. With middle-power partners including Norway and Belgium, Canada led the diplomatic and political charge that produced the landmine treaty. In contrast, Canada's role in the cluster agreement has been peripheral, apparently reluctant, with Norway taking the lead.

By adopting the treaty, however cautiously, the Harper government has made a positive move and created the opportunity for Canada to retrieve the leadership role on the landmines/cluster issue that limp political and bureaucratic leadership has frittered away in the years since the 1998 landmines treaty signing.

There is much work to be done between now and December to get as many signatures on the Oslo treaty as possible. Canada is uniquely placed to use its landmines treaty experience, and reputation as an honest broker, to work the diplomatic back channels and make the treaty as widespread and potent as possible. Canada doesn't produce, or use, cluster bombs and is in the process of destroying what remains of a small stockpile. We have no vested interest. The Americans will resist, as they did during the landmines treaty negotiation, but the Harper government owes it to Canadians and to victims across the world to put this country's moral authority behind the cluster treaty. Canadian ratification will need parliamentary approval. Fast tracking that legislation would be a good start and a positive signal.

Canada's team at the Dublin talks, a mix of Foreign Affairs and National Defence arms control experts, and specialists in international law, was dispatched with something called "interoperability" high on its agenda. The concern, genuine enough, was that if Canada signed and ratified the legally binding international treaty without legal protection, the assisting of cluster-using countries in Afghanistan (i.e. the United States) could make Canada's generals, and even ruling politicians, vulnerable to prosecution in international court.

The Americans, who have a billion or more bomblets stockpiled, boycotted the Dublin talks along with the Russians and Chinese. But they cannot escape the reality that this treaty will stigmatize their cluster munitions whether they sign or not.

The Canadians, and other similarly concerned countries, succeeded in getting that protection, and while Paul Hannon, head of the NGO Mines Action Canada, calls it a "stain" on the treaty he also knows that without it, the Canadians would have been forced to walk away. Treaties of this sort are a compromise between the idealistic and the pragmatic, and in any case, with the obvious commitment of the countries gathered in Dublin, "we have access to effective stain remover," he observes.

The Canadian delegation -- absurdly and shamefully dismissed as "junior notetakers" by the opposition Liberals -- appear to have done superb work in getting language into the treaty that will offer real help, as opposed to promises and sympathetic words, for cluster bomb victims. The treaty will force commitments from ratifying countries to give financial and material assistance to their handicapped.

Few decision makers at Foreign Affairs, the Department of National Defence or the Prime Minister's Office have witnessed the human misery that landmines and cluster munitions cause. And those of us who have seen the carnage often have difficulty comprehending the psychological impact.

"You can't understand the feeling a mother or father has when their child goes to play in this place," a de-miner in Mozambique told me. "In Canada, you send your children to play and you know they will be safe. Here we don't know if they will come back without arms or legs. Or if they will come back at all."

Chris Cobb, who writes for the Citizen, won the 2007 Michener-Deacon Fellowship to research the global impact of landmines and cluster bombs.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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