Anti-cluster bomb action should start in Syria

While the extension and expansion of Canada’s mission against ISIL was debated in Parliament, Canada finally ratified a treaty that could save lives in the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria) for years to come.  On March 16, Canada ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions more than six years after signing the treaty.  Cluster munitions are dropped from aircraft or fired from the ground or sea, opening up in mid-air to release tens or hundreds of submunitions, which can saturate an area up to the size of several football fields. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of these inhumane weapons due to the unacceptable harm they cause to civilians. 

The Syrian government continues to use cluster munitions against its own people with catastrophic results – over 1,000 casualties were reported in 2013 and the casualties continued throughout 2014 and into this year.  While Canada’s ratification of the Convention on Cluster Munitions will not put an immediate end to the Syrian government’s use of this horrific weapon; Canada now has obligations to help lessen the suffering of Syrians injured by cluster munitions and to contribute to the prevention of future casualties.

Under Article 21 of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Canada has an obligation to discourage our allies in efforts against ISIL to not use cluster munitions. Article 21 is known as the universalization clause because it requires states parties like Canada to encourage allies to join the treaty and to discourage any use of cluster munitions by anyone.  The Canadian government should do everything it can to ensure that none of the states in the anti-ISIL coalition use cluster munitions to prevent further casualties amongst the civilian population in Syria or Iraq.

Canada also has obligations under the treaty to provide assistance to the victims of cluster munitions and to support risk education and the clearance of unexploded submunitions.  The Government of Canada can immediately begin to support Syrians who have been injured by these horrific weapons.  Support to trauma and medical services in Syria, to medical and rehabilitation services for refugees in neighbouring countries and to disability programs in the region will have an immediate impact on the lives of cluster munition survivors, their families and their communities.  All of these actions will help Canada meet the victim assistance obligations under the Convention on Cluster Munitions and will improve the lives of Syrians.

The government can also support risk education operations in displaced communities to help prevent casualties when people return home to areas now contaminated by unexploded submunitions.  The ongoing conflict means that clearance of unexploded submunitions cannot yet start but it is possible to educate people about the risks and to begin to gather information about dangerous areas to allow for a quick response as soon as it is safe to enter the country.  Canada can begin to plan for such life-saving actions by creating a rapid response fund and by supporting organizations that are doing surveys on the situation in Syria in preparation for clearance operations.  Over 98% of cluster munition casualties in Syria have been civilians and countless more civilians will be at risk when they return home to areas contaminated by cluster munition remnants.  Canada can act now to prevent future casualties through education and preparation for rapid response clearance.

Parliament will continue to discuss the mission in Iraq and Syria as it unfolds and pundits will analyze and criticise that we are risking too much or not doing enough.  Regardless of the extension and expansion of the military mission against ISIL, Canada has the opportunity to create meaningful change in the lives of the people who suffer the painful consequences of the Syrian government’s use of cluster munitions by fulfilling our obligations under the Convention on Cluster Munitions.  It is time for Canada to be a leader on ending the suffering caused by cluster munitions and let us start by helping the people of Syria.

By Erin Hunt, Programme Coordinator, Mines Action Canada.  Originally published in Embassy News on 8 April 2015