Arms control issues have been receiving a lot of attention lately. On April 2nd, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of the long-debated Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), establishing new regulations meant to prohibit the international sale and transfer of conventional weapons to the world’s worst human rights abusers. This landmark event occurred just two days before the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, the annual day of advocacy and outreach for organizations involved in the global campaign to ban landmines and other deadly weapons which disproportionately harm civilians during and after armed conflicts. In the United States, President Barack Obama gave a forceful speech on April 8th in Hartford, Connecticut in favor of stronger domestic gun-control legislation. All this coming as the world discovers the true extent of U.S. drone strikes in South Asia and the Middle East, with all the strategic, legal, and moral problems this raises.
Given all this attention to modern weapons of war and their humanitarian impacts, it’s a good time to reflect on another treaty which outlaws one of the most damaging weapons used by present-day militaries – cluster bombs. The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was adopted in 2008 by many of the same countries and civil-society groups which pushed for the Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention. Cluster munitions (i.e. bombs or rockets which scatter large quantities of sub-munitions or “bomblets” across a wide area) pose essentially the same humanitarian problem that anti-personnel landmines do – that is, they are incapable of discriminating between military and civilian targets, and they continue to inflict damage well after a conflict has ended. Unexploded sub-munitions (anywhere between 5 and 30 percent may fail to detonate) become de-facto landmines which remain deadly for years or even decades, causing physical and psychological trauma to their victims, disrupting land-use patterns and economic livelihoods, and creating lasting resentments among communities living in contaminated areas. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition – a civil society group dedicated to banning the use and production of the weapon – cluster bomb victims since the Second World War have been eighty-nine percent civilians, a quarter of whom are children. The height of cluster munitions use occurred during the Vietnam War, when the United States blanketed huge swaths of Indochina with them – decades later, their remnants are still claiming victims on a regular basis.
Although today cluster munitions tend to be used in only a handful of countries by governments and non-state actors – including recently in Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Thailand – the world has yet to reach the kind of total elimination which has nearly been achieved with landmines. Part of the problem is that the world’s major producers of cluster bombs don’t like the CCM, obstruct efforts by civil society groups to promote it, and exert political pressure on other states to do likewise. Moreover, the defense bureaucracies in some countries continue to view cluster munitions as an important component of their military capacity, and are resistant to give up the right to use or produce them in the future.
One argument that advocates and civil society groups probably don’t make use of enough is that weapons such as cluster bombs aren’t just wrong for humanitarian or legal reasons – they are also bad strategy. Clusters were invented in the first half of the twentieth century, an era of mechanized, large-scale warfare where densely concentrated groups of enemy soldiers or tank columns made attractive targets for area-affect weapons. Modern militaries, however, are more likely to find themselves fighting unconventional wars against irregular combatants in urban environments. These types of conflicts demand quality intelligence, a high degree of precision in combat operations, minimization of civilian casualties, and an effective political and communications strategy which attracts support of the population to your side and away from your enemy. Obliterating entire city blocks, taking out the local school which happened to be next to a military target, or contaminating fields and pastures with deadly explosive remnants tends to do the exact opposite. Moreover, using cluster bombs on your own citizens is a good way to quickly lose legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Muammar Gaddafi’s alleged use of cluster munitions against his own citizens in the waning days of his regime in 2011 invited widespread condemnation and helped to lock in the perception of a bloody, out-of-control regime which had to be removed. Arguably, the same thing is happening in Syria today. Like landmines and mustard gas, cluster bombs join the long list of heavy-handed military tactics which have no place in a civilized world – even during times of war – and which aren’t very effective policy-tools in the first place.
Although Canada was among the first countries to sign the CCM in 2008, it has yet to ratify the treaty through domestic legislation. Bill S-10, an Act to Implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions, was introduced in the Senate in April 2012, and is currently awaiting second reading in the House of Commons. However, many advocates consider the bill seriously flawed. Among other problems, it contains no specific prohibitions on investment in the production of cluster munitions, permits the retention of an unspecified number of cluster weapons for training purposes, and contains a controversial section on “Joint Military Operations” which would permit Canadian Armed Forces and public officials to “direct or authorize” a non-party state to conduct activities prohibited under the CCM. Not surprisingly, expert witnesses at the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade argued that these elements of the bill were far too permissive and undermined the spirit of the Convention.
One of the main risks of Bill S-10, besides the obvious risk of permitting a situation where a Canadian official knowingly orders a cluster bomb strike by a military ally, is the precedent it could set for other countries considering accession to the Convention. The current legislation in Canada could be used as an excuse by policy-makers elsewhere to water-down their own laws, and weaken the norm of “no cluster bombs, anywhere, under any circumstances.” The absence of strong Canadian leadership on the CCM is particularly striking given Canada’s well-known role in the creation of the Mine Ban Treaty over a decade ago.
The current government has proclaimed its adherence to a principled foreign policy which prioritizes the protection of human rights. Matching this vision with policies and legislation which uphold it requires a stronger law on cluster bombs than Bill S-10 currently provides.
Philip Andrew Martin is a NPSIA alumnus – class of 2012 – who currently works as a Mine Action Program Support Officer with Norwegian People’s Aid in Dushanbe, Tajikistan through the Young Professionals in Mine Action Program (YPIMAP) of Mines Action Canada.