OTTAWA - The Harper government removed only a single word in its controversial bill to ratify the international treaty to ban deadly cluster bombs, but it was enough to earn the grudging support of its critics.
The government won unanimous support for the modest amendment at the Commons Foreign Affairs committee meeting Tuesday, even though the Liberals and NDP said the changes didn't go far enough.
Liberal MP Marc Garneau said he didn't want to "look a gift horse in the mouth," and said the government's position marked "one small step" towards fixing a flawed piece of legislation.
New Democrat MP Paul Dewar said the government deserved some credit for realizing that it had to make changes, but lamented that they didn't go further "to restore the integrity of the treaty."
Canada signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008, but the bill to ratify it contained a contentious clause that would allow the Canadian Forces to be involved in the use of cluster bombs in joint operations with the United States, which has opted out of the convention.
The Conservative amendment removed the word "using" in a key part of the clause, but retained it in other sections. That means the bill now clearly prohibits Canadian military personnel from directly using the weapons, but doesn't completely rule out their involvement in combined operations.
Dewar gave credit to the relentless international campaign by a coalition of groups to persuade the government to fix the bill.
"Something happened that caused the government to take a look at this," said Dewar. "It doesn't always happen — rarely, if ever."
Paul Hannon, the executive director of Mines Action Canada, has been one of the leaders of the campaign. He said the fight that went into getting one word removed almost bordered on the absurd, but was worth it.
"It's only one word, but it is a very significant word," Hannon said.
"Everybody will be disappointed but they will understand we made some progress. We're used to this in our work."
The bill will now move to the Senate, where the amendments will be considered further. Hannon said more advocacy would be done there.
The government has maintained it must preserve its interoperability with its top military ally, including the high-level exchange programs that allow unprecedented access for senior officers to top level command exchanges.
That clause exposed the government to broad criticism from across Canada and the world, including the normally neutral International Committee of the Red Cross.
Former defence chief, retired general Walt Natynczyk, who served in Iraq with U.S. troops in 2004 after its invasion, has testified in support of the amendment.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and other government witnesses have said that a section of the Convention, Article 21, gives Canada the leeway it needs to preserve its interoperability with the U.S. and ratify the convention.
More than two dozen groups, individuals or organizations previously told the government that their interpretation of the Article 21, contained in section 11 of the bill, is far too broad.
Had Canada ratified the convention with that clause intact, critics said the convention would have been watered down and damage could be done to international law.
"It's about our reputation when it comes to arms control, which will also affect other treaties in the future," said Dewar.
In a joint submission to the committee, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross said the implications would be "profound" if the bill had passed, because it would have allowed Canadian officers to order, use or approve cluster bomb use.
"In our view, it is difficult to reconcile these activities with the object and purpose of the Convention 'to put an end for all time to the suffering and casualties caused by cluster munitions at the time of their use, when they fail to function as intended or when they are abandoned.'"
The Red Cross organizations proposed new wording that would scrap clause 11 or rewrite it to bring it into line with the convention.
Earl Turcotte, Canada's former chief negotiator for the convention, has told the committee in a written submission that the government is misinterpreting Article 21.
Turcotte, who quit the federal public service in protest over the issue, says the article was never meant to be used a "loophole" to be involved in the use cluster bombs.
Turcotte said the bill "constitutes a reversal of many of the key commitments Canada made during negotiations and by signing the convention in 2008 and is an affront to other states that negotiated in good faith."
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