Amidst global outrage against the US plan to donate cluster munitions to Ukraine the Trudeau government’s opposition has been muted. It reflects Canada’s hawkish position on the war as well as ambivalence towards the cluster convention and arms control initiatives.
On Friday the Biden administration announced new military assistance to Ukraine that includes cluster munitions. The horrific weapons often leave unexploded bomblets that later wreak havoc on unintended targets, particularly children. Some 20,000 civilians have been killed since the US stopped dropping these types of bombs in Laos half a century ago. More than 120 countries have banned these munitions. Many within Biden’s Democratic party and NATO have criticized the move.
On Sunday Politico asked Anita Anand, “What’s your reaction to the U.S. sending cluster munitions to Ukraine? This is a war where Canada is sending other kinds of weapons to Ukraine but has signed a convention opposing the use of cluster munitions.” Canada’s defence minister responded, “The suffering will not end until Putin lays down his weapons and gets out of Ukraine. Canada is focused on our obligations under international treaties and conventions, as well as providing Ukraine with the military equipment that it needs to fight and win this war. That’s my focus. We don’t support the use of cluster munitions, which Russia in particular has used heavily.”
Asked about the matter the next day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a similar reply, refusing to directly criticize Washington. But with criticism of the move growing, foreign affairs minister Melanie Joly was clearer in her criticism of the US when asked about it Tuesday.
Russian forces have used cluster bombs in Ukraine. So have Ukrainian forces. In fact, the Ukrainian military has been using cluster bombs against the population in the Donbass since not long after the Canadian-backed ouster of elected president Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014. Human Rights Watch documented some of the death and destruction caused by cluster munitions in Donetsk City and environs in October 2014. They found the Ukrainian military killed an employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross and at least five others with cluster munitions that month. Dozens more were injured with the US-based rights group saying the real casualty figure was likely far higher.
The Liberals’ reaction to the US sending cluster bombs partly reflects Canada’s ambivalence towards the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Canada took seven years to heed the convention with eighty-nine states pledging to eliminate the deadly weapons before Ottawa. More troubling, Canada’s appropriating legislation allows the Canadian Forces to participate in joint military operations with countries that have refused to sign the convention (notably the US). Director of the Cluster Munition Coalition, Laura Cheeseman said, “Canada cannot claim to have banned cluster bombs when it proposes to allow its military to help others use the weapons.” The Liberals rejected an NDP motion three months ago to strengthen Canadian compliance with the convention.
More broadly, Ottawa has opposed or been ambivalent towards arms control efforts due to the military’s ties with the US, NATO and arms industry influence. With NATO a nuclear arms club, Canada has opposed every stage of developing and implementing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Since 2007 Canada has abstained on a series of UN resolutions concerning depleted uranium munitions. Backed by the vast majority of General Assembly members, the resolutions don’t even call for the abolition of DU, but only for transparency in their use to enable clean up (the US and Britain have sent Ukraine armour piercing shells containing DU).
Canadian diplomats recommended a minimalist UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which is designed to limit weapons from getting into conflict zones and the hands of human rights violators. Then Ottawa waited until more than onehundred countries had acceded to the ATT before doing so. Canada’s appropriating legislation to “accede” to the treaty is highly flawed with Canadian military exports to the US exempt from licensing and reporting requirements.
Ottawa has also allowed Canadian companies to flout UN arms embargos. Southern Ontario-based Streit Group has a recently exported armoured vehicles to Sudan, South Sudan and Libya in violation of UN sanctions while Waterloo-based Aeryon Labs supplied Libyan rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi’s government with a three-pound, backpack-sized Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in contravention of UN resolution 1970 and 1973.
Notwithstanding the media framing, Canada isn’t an arms control leader.
Ottawa’s muted opposition to the US sending cluster munition also reflects its commitment to the NATO proxy war. The US is sending the horrible bombs because Ukrainian forces are running low on artillery shells after a year and a half of brutal fighting. After helping provoke the conflict by pushing NATO expansion, helping oust Yanukovich and undermining the Minsk II peace accord, Ottawa has sought to prolong the fight to weaken Russia. Ottawa has ignored or criticized recent initiatives put forward by Brazil, China and the African Union to explore a truce and peace negotiations.
Today Trudeau announced another half a billion dollars in assistance to Ukraine on top of more than $8 billion already delivered. Over the past 18 months Canada has given $2 billion in arms, provided intelligence assistance, promoted former Canadian soldiers fighting, trained Ukrainian forces and dispatched special forces, etc. The Canadian government is also spending $2.6 billion over three years to ramp up its semipermanent military force on Russia’s border in Latvia to 2,200 personnel.
Ottawa has staked a great deal on this battle with Russia. But Ukraine’s counteroffensive seems to be floundering and it’s unlikely Ukraine will regain much of its lost territory without incredible death and destruction. Using more cluster bombs will only increase the horrors.