03/17/2015 11:37 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT

Canada Ratifies Cluster Bomb Treaty After Years Of Controversy

OTTAWA - The Harper government faced criticism Tuesday that it was undermining the international convention to ban deadly cluster bombs, as it ratified the treaty after more than half a decade of controversy.

Canada signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008, but dragged its heels on ratifying it in the face of widespread international complaints, including from the usually neutral International Committee of the Red Cross.

The opposition stemmed from a loophole in its ratification law 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 government has defended its position based on the larger issues surrounding the need to remain interoperable with its biggest military ally, the United States. A spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson reiterated that Tuesday saying the legislation "strikes a good balance between humanitarian obligations and preserves our national security and defence interests."

Earl Turcotte was Canada's chief negotiator on the treaty, but he resigned from the federal public service in 2011 because of concerns about the legislation.

Turcotte said in an interview Tuesday that the ratification law does not live up to the "spirit and the letter" of the convention. But now that Canada has ratified it will be "held to account by the international community, other states parties, civil society and UN agencies who will demand that Canada fulfil its international obligations."

"We have just seen the beginning of a serious criticism of Canada for its legislation."

Nicholson noted in a statement that cluster bombs have had a "devastating impact" on civilians and that Canada was helping save lives with a further $2.4 million contribution for mine clearance and education.

Paul Hannon, the executive director of Mines Action Canada, said Canada's traditional contribution to anti-mine efforts has fallen off in recent years, and should be increased to at least $35 million a year. Widespread concern remains over the "numerous loopholes" in the law, he added.

More than two dozen groups, individuals or organizations have told the government to amend the bill to close the interoperability loophole. The World Federalists sent a letter to the government signed by 27 international law experts calling for changes.

The Conservatives eventually agreed to excise a single word from the bill — using — which clearly prohibits Canadian military personnel from directly using the weapons, but doesn't entirely bar their indirect involvement in combined operations.

A single cluster bomb contains hundreds of brightly coloured, baseball-size submunitions that often fail to explode and can sit dormant for decades, posing an ongoing hazard to civilians, especially children.

The weapons date back to the Second World War and were used by United States in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1960s. They've been used by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently by various combatants in Syria, Ukraine and Libya.

Last year, the Canadian Forces destroyed their stockpile of the weapons, which the government says Canada never used, as part of its treaty obligations.

Under some high-level military exchange programs that are unique to Canada, top Forces generals are allowed to command American troops.

Hannon said he was encouraged by the statement of Conservative Sen. Suzanne Fortin-Duplessis during hearings last year in which she said, "Canadian commanders will never have the right to order the use of cluster munitions" in joint operations.

Turcotte said he does not think a Canadian commander would ever be party to cluster bomb use, "but if they're going to do that, they might as well fix the legislation and do it right."

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