The Carnage of Cluster Bombs

Dear Friends,

A brief break from match-fixing to look at the issue of children being mutilated by cluster bombs.   Two days ago, I posted about my experience in an Iraqi hospital.  Then I received an unexpected note from Earl Turcotte – Canada’s former top negotiator on the international convention to ban cluster bombs.

Mr. Turcotte resigned from his government position when Canadian officials caved into US pressure (not for the first time from these gutless wimps). The Americans claimed he  was ‘too aggressive’ in pushing for the banning of cluster bombs.

He now lives and works in Laos helping to clean up the carnage that the American bombing left in that country.

For non-Canadians a brief explanation – our parliament is currently considering whether we should actually ratify the treaty that Mr. Turcotte and others helped draft that would ban cluster bombs.

The logic is clear.   As military weapons, cluster bombs are a strategic failure. They largely target civilians, particularly children.

Mr. Turcotte writes,

‘Why in God’s name, would anyone not want to do everything possible to stop such carnage?


For the past 18 months, I have been UNDP’s Chief Technical Advisor to the Government of Laos in the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)/ Mine Action Sector.  I would like to begin with a few words about cluster munitions in Laos, where Minister Baird was recently, to illustrate the impact of these weapons.


From 1964 to 1973, during the Vietnam War (known here as the Indo-China War), the United States carried out  intensive bombardment of more than  one-third of Laos in an effort to cut off supply routes to the north Vietnamese – the so-called ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’.

The US dropped the equivalent of the payload of one B-52 Bomber (which can hold 100 – 500lb. bombs) on Laos every minutes – 24 hours a day – for 9 years.  In total, almost 3 million tons of ordnance – – more than was dropped on Germany and Japan during WW II and approximately one ton for every man, woman and child living in Laos at the time.  This has left this small country with tragic distinction of being, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in history.

The ‘weapon of choice’ was cluster munitions, which saturate large areas in a short period of time, and at relatively low cost. Cluster munitions have often been referred to as the ‘poor man’s weapon of mass destruction’.

According to US bombing data provided to the Lao government in 2010, among the ordnance were 270 million cluster sub-munitions, each with a kill range of more than 100 meters in all directions.

The impact on the civilian population at the time of use in the decades since, has been devastating.  It is estimated that 30%  – 80 million – cluster sub munitions remained unexploded and potentially lethal after the war ended in 1973.  Thousands people have been killed over the past 40 years since the war ended and there are also an estimated 20,000 cluster munition survivors who require varying degrees of physical, psychological and economic support.  As recently as 2008, there were still more than 300 casualties per year. Almost all were children and farmers.

Clearing explosive cluster munition remnants is expensive and painstaking. After 40 years of intensive effort, with support of the international community from the mid-1990s that currently averages US$30 million a year, the Lao Government estimates that is has cleared less than  2% of the area that is potentially contaminated.

How long will the danger persist? No one knows. The technology is formidable and there is no sign that these deadly remnants of war will become benign any time soon.

Equally devastating is the indirect but no less deadly impact of cluster munitions as an obstacle to development, by denying safe access to valuable agricultural and development land. It is no coincidence that the most impoverished parts of Laos are those that are most heavily contaminated by cluster munitions. Perhaps many times more people have suffered and/or died due to poverty caused or exacerbated by the presence of cluster munitions, as have from the direct impact of the weapon.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions…

The Convention on Cluster Munitions is a remarkable diplomatic and humanitarian achievement that imposes a categorical ban on cluster munitions.

Article 21 of the Convention on Cluster Munitions preserves States Parties’ capacity to engage in combined operations with non-party States, without allowing them in any way to aid or abet the use of this weapon.

Article 21 is not – and never will be – a ‘loophole’ to allow States Parties to abrogate the very clear prohibitions contained in Article 1 of the Convention. Indeed, Article 21 itself re-invokes the entire Convention which categorically bans the weapon, and adds positive obligations on States Parties to make “best efforts” to discourage their use by non-party States.

Any claim by DND that there are exceptional circumstances where assisting in or even directing the use of cluster munitions by Non-party State’s armed forces would be legal under the Convention, is utter and complete nonsense. If there was any suggestion during negotiations of the CCM that such activities could be allowed by Article 21, it would never have been accepted by other negotiating States, and I would never have put it forward.

As Head of Delegation, I made all statements for the Canada during plenary negotiations. I know what I said on behalf of our country, with political and official-level support at that time. I also know how it was understood and ultimately agreed by all 108 negotiating States.

Bill C-6 constitutes a reversal of many of the key commitments Canada made during negotiations and by signing the Convention in 2008 and is an affront to other States that negotiated in good faith. It could render our Armed Forces complicit in the continued use of cluster munitions and subject to prosecution in other jurisdictions.

As mentioned during my testimony to the Senate Committee a year ago, I have great respect for Canada’s Armed Forces. My father fought in Europe with the Canadian Army for 3 years during WW-II. If he were alive today, I know that, as a former soldier, he would fully support my position on this Bill. Indiscriminate weapons that kill and maim the very people countries such as ours should be trying to protect, are not worthy of soldiers of honour.

I wish to leave you with one final thought on Laos before moving on to the body of my testimony.  That is — that the last child to die from cluster munitions dropped on this small country almost half a century ago, has not been born yet and may not be born for at least another generation.

Why in God’s name, would anyone not want to do everything possible to stop such carnage? Is Bill C-6 really Canada’s “best effort”?

Please stand firm with our 20 NATO allies and more than 90 other countries that have vowed never, under any circumstances, to allow such a horrible weapon to be used again.


Earl Turcotte

Vientiane, Laos

November 15, 2013

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