Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird pledged Tuesday to earmark $10-million over the next 18 months to help end the misery caused by deadly cluster bombs.
Despite the commitment, Baird continued to defend a loophole in Canada's heavily criticized bill that would ratify Canada's participation in the international treaty to ban the deadly munitions that are a hazard to innocent civilians, especially children, in dozens of postwar countries.
Baird said the so-called interoperability clause is necessary because Canadian Forces personnel need to participate in joint operations with the United States, which has opted out of the treaty. Senior Canadian military officers also enjoy privileged access to top-level exchange programs within the U.S. military.
"These secondments improve the security and safety of all Canadians," Baird said during testimony before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.
"Within these secondments it would be a very, very rare scenario in which a Canadian Armed Forces member might – might – be directly implicated in the use of cluster munitions by U.S. forces."
Baird said there are fewer than five Canadians in command positions in multilateral missions.
The minister said he wished the U.S. would ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions, telling an all-party committee that he is "stunned" U.S. President Barack Obama has not done so.
When asked in an interview whether he would press the U.S. to ratify the convention, Baird demurred.
The minister said Canada had to do three other things first: destroy the Forces' own unused stockpile of never-used cluster bombs, ratify the convention and help finance the eradication of the weapons in other countries.
Paul Hannon, executive director of Mines Action Canada, welcomed Baird's financial commitment because Canada's funding of the sector has fallen off "dramatically" in recent years.
"It's a good start," Hannon said in an interview, noting that Canada should be spending $35-million annually, or a dollar for each Canadian.
"I'm hoping they're realizing they're not meeting their obligations. I think the minister's travelling and his trip to Laos may have had an impact on him."
Baird travelled to Laos last month, the country most heavily contaminated with cluster bombs, per capita. The tiny South Asian country is living with the legacy of the nine years of saturation bombing by American warplanes during the Vietnam War, which ended four decades ago.
Cluster bombs are an inaccurate weapon that kills and maims innocent civilians in some cases, such as with Laos, decades after their use.
Baird told The Canadian Press he was affected by a visit he paid to a medical ward of cluster-bomb victims.
"There was a baby – a baby – who had lost its entire leg," Baird said. "There was a 72-year-old man getting rehabilitation therapy with his prosthetic leg, and then everything in between."
Baird said he met with the NDP and Liberal critics to discuss the government's bill, which would ratify the convention.
The opposition parties are calling on the government to close the interoperability loophole.
Asked if he was open to any such opposition amendments, Baird said he's willing to listen but suggested he's made up his mind.
"I've been in opposition, and I've been in government. You go from perfect to the art of the possible," he said.
Canada signed the treaty in 2008 but has yet to ratify it. The clause in Canada's ratification bill has opened the government to widespread criticism, including the normally neutral International Committee of the Red Cross that the clause essentially waters down the convention.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau told Baird during the hearing that the government's stand is morally ambiguous.