Cluster bomb victims call on Canada to ratify convention to ban 'dirty' weapon

GENEVA – The last day of Ahmad Mokaled’s short life dawned on a sunny spring February morning in the southern Lebanon town of Nabatieh.

Feb. 12, 1999, was Ahmad’s fifth birthday. So his father, Raed, pulled him out of school for an impromptu celebration with Ahmad’s older brother, Adam, at a bustling public park where the boys sprinted into a growing throng of children.

Fifteen minutes later, an explosion silenced the revelry, killing Ahmad instantly. Adam, then 8, would become a traumatized witness to his brother’s sudden death from a dormant cluster bomblet — a lethal remnant of a long-ended conflict.

Cluster bombs are anti-personnel weapons designed to scatter smaller, baseball-sized bombs over a wide area. Some do not explode immediately and, instead, lie in wait for an unwary passerby, claiming innocent civilians and children.

Cluster bomb victims like Raed Mokaled are calling on Canada to ratify the international convention that would ban the weapon.

But like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Norway, they are concerned about Canada’s pending ratification bill, one they say allows Canadian Forces personnel to transport or stockpile the banned bombs during joint operations with the U.S., which has opted out of the convention entirely.

“It’s a small message to the politicians, all the politicians in Canada and to the government,” Mokaled said in an interview in Geneva, where he was recently attending a major international meeting on the cluster bomb convention.

“Think of the children around the world like you think of your own children. That’s it.”

The international campaign to ban the weapons has been gaining momentum since the adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008.

Canada signed the convention in 2008, but the legislation to ratify it was only introduced last year and is still before the House of Commons after passing through the Senate last fall. With Parliament rising for the summer recess late Tuesday, the ratification is stalled once again.

New Democrat MPs Paul Dewar and Helene Laverdiere pressed the government in Question Period on Tuesday to work with the opposition to amend the bill and close what they called “loopholes” in the “flawed legislation.”

Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, brushed aside the request and reiterated the government’s position, that the pending legislation “strikes a good balance between humanitarian obligations while preserving our national security and defence interests.”

Moaffak Alkhafaji, a one-time Iraqi soldier turned activist, has a strong message for Canada as it strives to preserve its military interoperability with the U.S.

Alkhafaji felt the full force of a U.S. cluster bomb in 1991, when he was a part of Saddam Hussein’s army. He lost his left leg in a cluster bomb blast as he and his comrades were strafed by U.S. warplanes in southern Iraq.

“It’s not good that Canadians collaborate with other countries like the United States on support, or use or produce or transfer cluster munitions because it’s against the humans all over the world,” Alkhafaji said in a recent interview in Geneva.

Iraq formally ratified the convention on May 14, becoming the 83rd country to do so. A total of 112 countries have signed the convention, and 29 of them, including Canada, have yet to formally ratify it.

Along with the U.S., major military powers such as China, Russia and Israel have also steered clear of the convention.

The U.S. used cluster munitions on Iraq twice — during the 1991 and 2003 conflicts. British bombers joined the Americans in dropping cluster bombs 10 years ago, as they battled insurgents between May and August 2003.

In all, the 74,000 cluster bombs dropped on Iraq spewed 22 million bomblets, mostly in its southern region towards the Kuwaiti border, according to figures from the Cluster Munition Coalition.

Overall, it is not known exactly how many failed to explode, but to this day, Iraq continues to cope with their unforgiving legacy.

Iraq is still in the midst of a survey that is trying to measure the scope of the problem, Essa Al Fayadh, the director general for Iraq’s 10-year-old mine action directorate, said in an interview.

So far, a national study of three southern provinces has counted 14,500 victims, but Iraq won’t have a true portrait of the human damage until the end of 2014, when more data from around the country is collected, he said.

Iraq also needs to triple the number of de-miners it employs to 10,000, and buy more equipment for mechanical de-mining.

“We need to establish new centres for artificial limbs because most of the centres in Iraq now, they have old-fashioned legs,” said Fayadh. “We need to support the centres with international organizations because we need to assist the victims. We have very big numbers of victims.”

After Saddam’s ouster in 2003, Alkhafaji formed a non-governmental organization — all were banned under the dictator — to advocate for the rights of disabled people.

He called his new group the Iraqi Alliance for Disability.

Today, he is an advocate for cluster bomb victims, which brought him to Geneva recently to give a presentation at a major meeting that measures progress on the convention.

“It’s a very dirty weapon,” he said. “Its effect is random. It doesn’t care if the target is civilian or military. At the same time, the shape is like a ball. That’s why it attracts the kids, to use and play.”

In 1991, Canada sent CF-18 fighter-bombers to strike Iraqi targets, but did not use cluster munitions. Canada is not known to have ever used the weapons, but it has a stockpile of cluster munitions that it is in the process of destroying.

Canada opted out of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but has been a steadfast ally of the U.S. in other joint operations, including fighting a resurgent al-Qaida in Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks, where cluster bombs were also dropped.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. dropped an estimated 1,230 cluster bombs that unleashed almost 250,000 bomblets in the effort to drive out the Taliban government in 2001 after the 9-11 attacks.

“In 2001, when the Americans attacked the Taliban, they used cluster munitions in parts of Afghanistan, no one will deny that probably some Taliban were killed as a result,” said Dr. Mohammed Reza, a surgeon and a former mujahedeen who fought the Soviet Union invaders in the 1980s.

“But also the fact is that ordinary people also suffered, especially the children that pick up the submunitions thinking that maybe it was something good, like a toy or something,” added Reza, a former senior government official in the post-Taliban Afghan government, during an interview in Geneva.

“As a surgeon, I dealt with the consequence of these things. Yes, we had casualties among the children, adults, man and woman. Families suffered.”

With major U.S. assistance, the country has managed to rid itself of unexploded ordnance in the most populated areas, but Reza says a lot of bomblets likely lie dormant in remote rural areas, where they still can pose a threat.

While Afghanistan can count itself among the leaders in getting rid of cluster bombs, places like Lebanon still have their work cut out for them.

According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, Israel has used cluster bombs in the south of Lebanon in 1978, 1982 and the summer of 2006, when it declared war on Hezbollah militants after they kidnapped an Israeli soldier.

The tragedy of five-year-old Ahmad Mokaled in 1999 speaks to the fact that a single unexploded cluster bomblet can remain a threat, decades after it has dropped. He was drawn to an unexploded cluster bomb that was a remnant of one of Lebanon’s older bombardments.

The bomblets have proved particularly adept at maiming innocent civilians, particularly small children, allowing some of the world’s most notorious, seemingly dormant war zones, to continue inflicting unmitigated pain and suffering.

“I call this weapon — the cluster bombs — a blind weapon,” said Raed Mokaled. “It cannot choose. They throw it everywhere … Sometimes the Israelis throw a cluster bomb that looks like a toy.”