Editorial: When a military “tool” turns bad

By ├ćndrew Rininsland

It’s really hard to argue about taking something away from the military. When you have people risking their lives in foreign countries ostensibly for your benefit, it seems ludicrous to take away one of the “tools” they use to do their job.

But what if that “tool” hurts children unaware of the actions of their government? What if that “tool” poisons the land of the countries we’re supposed to be helping, even decades after conflict has ended? When the military employs something which routinely maims and kills civilians, it stops being a tool–it becomes a weapon, one against those who aren’t involved.

Cluster bombs are a very effective way to not only devastate a large area, but also a large part of the civilian population. Instead of dropping one warhead, it deploys around 10 smaller bombs that scatter and explode–usually. Cluster bomb duds are often thought to be toys and later kill or dismember children that have already endured the destruction of other significant parts of their lives. Dud warheads have always been a problem, but cluster bombs make this problem exponentially bigger while making an explosive payload look more innocuous. International pressure to ban the weapons has been mounting, but is only now starting to come to a head with events like the 12-day Cluster Munitions Conference held this week in Dublin.

On Friday, 111 nations agreed to a treaty outlawing all current cluster bomb designs and requiring the destruction of existing stockpiles by 2016. Though Canada was a signatory, a number of nations were not, including the United States. The treaty will be binding for signatory nations once it’s formally signed in Oslo this December, however, they can still be allies with and work with ones that are not.

The absence of the U.S. in the negotiations is not surprising, but still quite unfortunate. The U.S. has a long tradition of ignoring multilateralism, especially when it means the military has their hands tied on certain issues. Human cost is always second to efficiency in the U.S. military. For instance, the U.S. has always been one of a number of nations refusing to sign or ratify the 1997 Treaty on Landmines–a list now less than 40 countries long, including such bastions of progressive policy as Iran and North Korea. It makes one wonder how the U.S. can still reasonably portray itself as the benevolent provider of freedom it claims to be on the world stage while still using munitions that unintentionally target civilians. It further makes one wonder why the U.S. is refusing to let go of obsolete munitions that place them in the same class as tin-pot dictatorships. Shouldn’t the most advanced military in the world be willing to replace their old technology so they’re not using the same weapons as Libya–another landmine treaty non-signatory?

The U.S. hasn’t been using cluster bombs in Iraq since 2003, according to a CanWest news article. Maybe the argument could be made that the operations theatre has changed since then, but arguing operational freedom in the face of massive bilateral efforts and human costs is just arrogant. When 111 countries have decided to stop using a specific form of munitions–especially when many are your allies–it makes political sense to acquiesce when it’s something you’re not really using anyway. The operational freedom argument makes even less sense when the document you’re refusing to sign isn’t even an all out ban, but more of a requirement that nations change the designs of their weapons to be more post-war friendly.

The track record of the U.S. in terms of political multilateralism under Bush is appalling. Whether Obama or McCain gets elected in the coming months, we can only hope they’ll be more open-minded to listening to the rest of the world than what we’ve seen recently.

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