Hearings continued this week in Canada on a controversial bill that would significantly weaken the international ban on cluster munitions. Senior clinical instructor Bonnie Docherty was among several weapons experts in Ottawa last week to argue that the bill, as written, would undermine the treaty, known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and call into question Canada’s credibility on disarmament issues.

In her testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Docherty contended the proposed legislation to implement the treaty falls far short of both the convention’s humanitarian goal and the standards set by other countries.

Two men stand in a grassy and straw-covered field, collecting remains of a 12-year old who was killed by a submunition.
Two men collect the final remains of 12-year-old Rami `Ali Hassan Shebli, who was killed by a submunition in Halta, Lebanon, six years ago this week. Photograph by Bonnie Docherty.

The Convention strives to eliminate cluster munitions and the suffering they cause by imposing an absolute ban on the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of the weapons. It also requires countries to clear cluster munitions left after an armed conflict and to provide assistance for victims of past use.

One hundred and eleven countries—including Canada—have joined the convention; 77 are full parties bound by all its obligations.  Before Canada can ratify, it must pass legislation detailing how it will implement the Convention.

Bill S-10 creates broad exceptions to the ban on cluster munitions that apply during joint military operations with allies that have not joined the treaty, notably the United States.  In her testimony, Docherty told senators, “The bill contains major loopholes that would allow Canadians to assist with the use of cluster munitions that could kill civilians.”  The bill even allows Canadian soldiers themselves to use cluster munitions if they are on secondment to the United States.

Docherty, who has done extensive field research on cluster munitions over the past decade, also described the civilian suffering caused by cluster munitions.  She told the senators of one particular civilian victim—12-year-old Rami from Lebanon.  On October 22, 2006, his brother was throwing pine cones at him, and when Rami reached for something to throw back, he accidentally picked up a submunition. Before the boy could toss the weapon away, it exploded, killing him instantly. Docherty and her team from the Clinic arrived at the scene just a few hours later.

“While we have much work ahead in our campaign to amend the bill, the hearing provided us the opportunity to highlight the flaws of the bill to the people who can fix them,” Docherty said about her testimony. “I had a lively exchange with several senators, some of whom seemed quite concerned about the threat cluster munitions—and these loopholes—pose to civilians.”

Docherty’s testimony built off a brief jointly submitted to the Senate Committee by the Clinic and Human Rights Watch. In the brief, Docherty and her team of clinical students—Sean Imfeld, Melinda Kuritzky, and Kenny Pyetranker—make specific recommendations for how Bill S-10 should be amended to conform to the spirit and letter of the disarmament treaty. In particular, the brief urges the Senate to remove any exceptions to the absolute ban on cluster munitions and ensure that Canadian troops and government officials never, even during joint military operations, assist with their use.

Cluster munitions are large weapons that contain dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions.  They cause civilian casualties during attacks, because they spread over a broad area and cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians in populated areas, and afterwards, because many do not explode on impact.

Melinda Kuritzky, JD ’13, is a member of Docherty’s team and a student in the Clinic’s Advanced Skills Training for Human Rights Advocacy seminar.