What’s in a word? Moving forward on Bill C-6

After many letters, scores of petitions, and numerous meetings with Members of Parliament, Bill C-6, An Act to Implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions, has been amended and will make its way back to the House of Commons in the new year.

This moment was the culmination of the efforts and energies of many civil society organizations over the last year and a half. MCC’s work on cluster bombs, of course, reaches back much further than this.

From the earliest days in the villages of northern Laos experimenting with16LaoBombieBeater80_2 shovels and a heavily-shielded bombie-beating tractor for clearing contaminated land, to advocating internationally for the eradication of the weapon, for more than 35 years MCC has been at the forefront of calls to address the devastating impacts of cluster munitions.

Since the beginning of November, my colleagues and I in the Ottawa Office eagerly attended each and every committee hearing on Bill C-6. While MCC was not one of the two civil society organizations invited to testify in person this time around, we tabled a written submission offering the committee our recommendations for strengthening Canada’s implementation of the Treaty.

In addition to expressing deep concern over the wide-ranging exemptions mapped out in Section 11 of the bill, MCC called on the government to take stronger leadership in mandating an ongoing commitment to the positive obligations Canada is assuming as a state party to the Convention (e.g., helping universalize the norms of the treaty, providing support for victims, notifying allies of our obligations, and destroying our stockpiles).

Last Tuesday was a big day in the life of the committee study. Having voted the week before to set aside Section 11—the most contentious clause in the bill—for special consideration, the committee now debated and discussed this part of the legislation in detail. We listened with baited breath while they did so.

Many opposition amendments were brought forward. All were voted down.

In the end, one government amendment was put forward, and approved, that deleted a single word—”using” in 11(1)(c)—from the over 2,700 word bill.

So, what’s in a word?

06B18LancerCBU2“Using” is, of course, a crucial one. We think that deleting this word from Section 11(1)(c) likely means that while on joint military missions Canadians will be prohibited from dropping a cluster bomb from a Canadian plane. The issue, however, is that the amendment did not delete enough.

This is not the only time the word “use” shows up in Section 11 in some way, shape, or form. Even with the amendment, while on exchange or secondment to joint missions with non-party states Bill C-6 still permits the Canadian Forces to facilitate ongoing use by:

  • directing or authorizing an activity that may involve the use, acquisition, possession, import or export of a cluster munition…
  • expressly requesting the use of a cluster munition…
  • acquiring, possessing, or moving a cluster munition…
  • transporting or engaging in an activity related to the transport of a cluster munition…
  • aiding, abetting, or counseling another person to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…
  • conspiring with another person to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…
  • receiving, comforting, or assisting another person  to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…

If Canada doesn’t want our military personnel personally to use cluster bombs, why would we allow them to assist in or even request the use of these weapons by others?

Given this lengthy list of wide-ranging exemptions still permitted under Canada’s Prohibiting Cluster Munitions Act, it seems an amendment should have been tabled to change the bill’s rather misleading title!

How will Canada navigate the tensions (indeed, inherent contradictions) between facilitating the ongoing use of a banned weapon in joint operations on the one hand, while upholding the universalization clauses of the Treaty found in Article 21(1) and (2)—which require Canada to actively discourage the use of cluster bombs by non-party states and urge others to join the Convention—on the other?

In response to these tensions, the government suggested that our loopholes will become less necessary over time as more states become signatories to the Convention. In other words, when countries such as the U.S. step up to the plate, Canada will be in a better position to fulfill its Treaty obligations. An interesting argument. It was, after all, Canada’s standard-setting leadership in implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines that helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

But is there a brighter side?

Clustermunitions_webrotatingphoto13_1Here’s another perspective: While deleting a single word doesn’t do much to ameliorate the problematic elements of the bill, perhaps there is more to this word than meets the eye.

As was noted in the final Committee hearing, there have been very few amendments made to government bills over the last number of years—in the current Parliament, roughly 80% of all bills have sailed through committees untouched. Perhaps it was the hard work and unified voice of Canadian civil society organizations and international campaigners that helped create the wiggle room needed for one small improvement to be made to the legislation.

While we don’t anticipate any further amendments to the legislation as it goes to third reading in the House and then on to the Senate, this is not the last word on Bill C-6.

At the final Committee hearing last Tuesday there was another word worth noting: in addition to proposing the amendment the government gave its word that it would invite the Standing Committee to play a more significant role in strengthening and expanding on the annual transparency reports required by the Treaty.

We are hoping that this annual reporting process will provide an opportunity for MCC and other civil society organizations to draw attention to Canada’s implementation of its positive obligations under the Convention in the years ahead.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Senior Policy Analyst

2 Thoughts

  1. Thanks, Jenn, for this informative and thoughtful update. One would have wished for much, much more in the way of amendments–but I also appreciate the acknowledgement of the slivers of hope you identify.

  2. Thanks Jenn and all of you in the Ottawa office – well done! I will always remember the Grandma at the Mennonite Church in Steinbach who came up to me after I spoke about signing the petition and said “I’ve never signed a petition in my life, but when you speak about the devastation of those cluster bombs I am compelled to add my name.” Then she signed and her husband too. 🙂

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