11/07/2012 05:16 EST | Updated 01/07/2013 05:12 EST

Why Won't Canada Take a Stand on Cluster Bombs?


To a child, all the world's a playground and all things in it merely toys. Ayat Syleiman Ali was eight years old in 2003 when her country, Iraq, was at war with the U.S. One day, after bombs had fallen on her town of Samarra, her 11-year-old brother wandered into the kitchen, playing with a small metal object he had found outside.

The cool toy exploded and Jakob was shredded. Ayat's other two brothers, sleeping in the next room, were killed. Ayat suffered burns to 65 per cent of her body. Now 17, Ayat has become an outspoken advocate for Handicap International, one of the many organizations working to ban the weapon that shattered Ayat's life -- the cluster bomb.

Since the First World War, the global community has agreed to limit or outright prohibit the production and use of certain weapons, because of the scale of destruction (nuclear bombs), because of their horrific effects (poison gas) or, like cluster bombs, because they overwhelmingly affect the innocent. Canada, once a leader in fighting such weapons, is now a laggard.

According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, cluster bombs have been employed in at least 31 countries since the Second World War. Eighty-nine per cent of tens of thousands of cluster bomb casualties are civilians, a quarter of them children.

A cluster bomb scatters dozens, sometimes hundreds, of 'bomblets' -- some just baseball-sized -- over an area that can be as big as several football fields. However, anywhere from five to more than 30 per cent don't explode when they hit the ground, they just sit waiting for the first set of inquisitive little fingers to pick them up.

Phongsavath Manithong, another Handicap International advocate, was walking home from school in Laos in 2008 when he picked up an odd plant bulb beside the road. The 50-year-old 'bulb' blew both his hands off. It was his 16th birthday -- what a present.

Last month, Mohammed Ibrahim was killed while working with Norwegian People's Aid to clear unexploded cluster munitions in Lebanon. Organizations around the world are calling for a global condemnation of Syria for using cluster munitions against its own civilian population.

Canada does not use cluster bombs, and was among the first to sign the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008. However, four years later Canada still has not ratified because of concerns how the Convention will impact our relationship with allies.

A majority of NATO countries -- 17 nations -- have now ratified the Convention. However some Canadian allies like the U.S. and Israel still use cluster bombs.

To become a full party to the Convention, Canada must pass a law committing our country never to produce, use, or support the production or use of cluster bombs. Such a law is currently before Parliament -- Bill S-10 -- however groups like Mines Action Canada (MAC) say the legislation has gaping loopholes that must be closed.

Erin Hunt, a program officer with MAC, says that while Bill S-10 would prohibit Canadian Forces from using cluster munitions, Canadian soldiers may still specifically ask allied forces to use them during joint military operations. The Bill also does not prohibit other countries from potentially transporting cluster bombs through or stockpiling them on Canadian bases or territory.

There are currently no publicly known cases of Canadian soldiers requesting cluster bomb attacks or allies stockpiling or transporting such weapons on Canadian bases or territory. But to live up to the spirit of the Convention, any legislation must explicitly close these loopholes.

As well, S-10 does not prevent Canadian financial institutions from investing in companies that make cluster bombs.

According to Hunt, proponents of S-10 worry stronger legislation could interfere with Canada's ability to conduct joint missions with allies who use cluster bombs, and prevent Canadian soldiers under attack from calling for support from those allies.

Hunt argues the Convention allows for joint missions with countries that are not party to the treaty, and does not condemn soldiers who request support from those allies, as long as they do not specifically ask for the use of cluster bombs. Since Canada ratified the treaty on landmines more than 10 years ago, it has not harmed Canada's ability to work with allies like the U.S. who still use mines, she says.

This week we pay homage to Canadians who served and died to uphold global peace and freedom. What better way to honour their sacrifices than to advance peace by eliminating a weapon that kills and maims hundreds of children every year.

You can sign Mines Action Canada's petition calling on our government to fix Bill S-10 and enact strong legislation against cluster munitions.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit