Canada, which led the world 15 years ago in banning landmines, has waited five years to ratify a cluster bomb ban signed in Oslo in 2008.
As well, a heated debate is going on about whether Canada's legislation to ratify the convention should contain a clause allowing the Canadian military to co-operate with allies that still use cluster bombs.
Bill C-6, an act to implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) is currently being studied by the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. The legislation does support the prohibition of the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions, as the Oslo agreement stipulates.
But a key clause known as Section 11 permits the Canadian military to direct the use of, or even use, cluster munitions when involved in a joint operation with an ally who has not signed on to the convention, according to critics of the bill.
A cluster bomb is an air-dropped or ground-launched explosive weapon that releases or ejects smaller bombs, sometimes called bomblets or droplets. The droplets can resemble a child's ball, and children are currently some of the victims in countries that still have millions of unexploded cluster bombs in their soil.
On Tuesday, witnesses from Handicap International Canada and the Geneva-based Cluster Munition Coalition told the committee Canada's legislation ultimately contributes to the further use of cluster bombs.
As well, the former prime minister of Australia, Malcom Fraser, testifying via video conference, said, "If you want to kill women and children, cluster bombs are the weapons of choice." He urged Canada not to enable Canadian soldiers to use cluster bombs in joint operations with the U.S. military.
Fraser called the U.S. the only "significant country" that has not signed the Oslo convention banning cluster bombs.
Previously, the International Committee of the Red Cross appeared before the committee and advised Canada to amend its legislation.
Minister says bill is 'balanced approach'
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who testified before the committee a week ago, described the legislation as a "criminal law bill" and said, "Our service men and women could be held criminally responsible. So we are taking a balanced approach."
Baird explained the dilemma of Canadian military personnel having to call for air support from another country that uses cluster bombs. What if, he asked, a Canadian military plane were to refuel at a foreign airbase that stores cluster bombs, suggesting such an action would make Canadian personnel complicit in a crime.
Baird, who visited the South Asian country of Laos in October, spoke of the 80 million cluster bombs the region was bombarded with during the Vietnam war in the 1970s, which still litter the countryside.
Clearly moved by meetings he had with victims of cluster munitions, Baird pledged no Canadian soldier would ever use cluster bombs, and pointed out Canada has never produced or used cluster bombs.
"We need this tiny little exception," Baird said, speaking of Section 11 of the legislation, mainly because of Canada's tradition of conducting joint military operations with the United States. "I am stunned Obama doesn't want to sign on to the Oslo convention," Baird added.
Walter Dorn, who teaches defence studies at Kingston's Royal Military College, said in a telephone interview Tuesday, "I think the treaty doesn't allow the kind of exception that we're putting into our legislation."
Dorn, who testified before the committee last week, said, "I'm recommending that we put in the legislation that we don't provide any active assistance, so if there's an aircraft that overflies and we don't know if it contains cluster munitions then that's not something that's prohibited by Canadian law."
Critics urge banning investment in cluster bombs
Baird has said he's open to seeing some changes in the legislation.
Marc Drolet, of Handicap Canada International, told the committee that Canada should also ban investment in companies that manufacture cluster bombs, adding that 25 countries have implemented such a prohibition.
Drolet also said it was unfortunate no victims of cluster bombs have been called as witnesses at the committee.
Dorn, who is currently helping Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau with the wording of an amendment to the legislation, said Canada was the first country to put forward anti-landmine legislation, and the first to ratify what became known as the Ottawa convention on banning them.
Now, he said, Canada's the laggard when it comes to cluster bombs. "It's a little bit embarrassing. It used to be we were at the forefront of arms control."
Asked why, Dorn replied, "The Conservative government is much less enthusiastic about arms control, it's far more trade focused, so the emphasis in foreign affairs is on trade."