The American decision this week to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine is one that former Canadian foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy finds deeply disappointing – and “a little bit insulting.”
“There’s an old saying that once you unleash the dogs of war, you’re never sure where they’re going to run to. Well, I think we’ve unleashed this whole issue … using these terrible weapons,” said Axworthy, who currently serves as World Refugee and Migration Council chair.
Cluster munitions open in the air and release many smaller explosives. Most of the bombs explode when they hit the ground, but some don’t and become lodged in the ground where they can remain active for years, essentially creating minefields that can result in civilian deaths or severe injuries.
“That is going to be a legacy that Ukraine will have for years and years, where its own people will be under risk,” Axworthy said.
What are cluster munitions and why is the US providing the controversial weapons to Ukraine?
Canada has a long history of opposing these types of munitions, and both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly faced questions about the U.S. move this week.
By the time the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, wrapped up, it was clear Canada remained steadfast in two areas: continued financial and military support for Ukraine; staunch opposition to the use of cluster munitions.
These two stances now appear at loggerheads.
“We believe in our international obligations when it comes to cluster munitions and landmines, and we abide by them. So of course we do not agree with the American position and we mentioned it to the American officials,” Joly told reporters in Vilnius on Tuesday.
When asked if Ukraine using these munitions would affect Canada’s support, Joly said Canada will continue to provide training, financial resources, weapons and intelligence as has been the case since Russia invaded last year.
Trudeau was also clear.
“Canada was one of the countries that led on the banning of cluster munitions around the world,” Trudeau told reporters on Monday. “And we will continue to stand very strongly that they should not be used.”
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Canada led the creation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, known as the Ottawa Treaty, in 1997. More than 130 countries signed the treaty, including Ukraine, and Axworthy played a crucial role in the development and sign-on process for that treaty while he was foreign affairs minister.
More recently, in September 2015, Canada became a state party of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which carries similar prohibitions. Ukraine, Russia and the United States are not parties to this treaty.
David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says while Canada has long opposed the use of the munitions, the situation raises key questions about why Ukraine wants them now.
“We’ve had a strong track record on that. But at the same time it also makes us a little bit hypocritical because the basic reason that the Ukrainians have asked for (and why) the United States is supplying those cluster munitions is that we, collectively the West, can’t supply Ukraine with enough conventional artillery shells,” he said.
“I think if we’re going to go around and chide the Americans for doing this, if I was an American official, I’d turn around and say, ‘Well, Canada, what have you done to actually help provide the conventional artillery ammunition that Ukraine needs that we collectively can’t supply enough of?’”
He notes that Canada does have facilities capable of making both conventional artillery shells and propellant, and could do more.
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Last year, Canada donated four M777 Howitzer artillery canons to Ukraine, along with training on their use. In June 2022, Canada also shipped out a lightweight M777 that it says is more maneuverable and has a longer range (up to 30 kilometres) along with replacement parts for the howitzers.
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To date, the Canadian government says it has donated at least 40,000 155mm shells for the artillery canons to Ukraine, valued in excess of $60 million. Since February 2022 Canada has committed $1 billion in military support to Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials say they fire approximately 6,000-8,000 of the 155mm rounds per day.
Last week, the European Union announced a 500-million-euro plan to subsidize the production of 155mm ammunition in order to help Ukraine better replenish its stockpiles.
It all comes as Ukraine ramps up its defence against a renewed Russian offensive, and as expectations rise that there is no near or easy end in sight to the invasion.
While 122 nations are parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Perry doubts Ukraine will lose moral standing among their allies for the use of cluster munitions amid the Russian brutality.
“They’ve laid minefields all over the place. They’ve massacred civilians. So the Russians have committed, live on camera, multiple ostensible war crimes,” Perry said.
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According to June 2023 report from Human Rights Watch, Ukraine has been “severely contaminated” with mines and other “explosive remnants of war” since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and the situation has only intensified since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
These types of explosives have been reported in 11 of Ukraine’s 27 regions, predominantly in the eastern half of the country.
As of the end of June, the UN says more than 540,000 pieces of unexploded ordinance have been removed from Ukraine. A World Bank cost estimate of fully demining Ukraine puts the price tag at $37 billion.
Amid this, Axworthy maintains Canada must continue its leadership in ensuring the use of mines and similar explosives is barred from battlefields.
“I think that’s why Canada has a, I wouldn’t say our obligation, but a moral responsibility to continue as an advocate and as a steward of these new international rules of law that prevent the governments just of willfully using whatever destructive weapon their generals think are useful,” Axworthy said.
– with files from Global News’ Jillian Piper, Reuters and the Associated Press
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