Last Thursday, former chief of defence staff, retired general Walter Natynczyk, appeared before the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs.
While Natynczyk is currently the head of Canada’s Space Agency, he testified about his experience as an exchange officer with the U.S. military in Iraq during 2004.
At that time, some eyebrows were raised when it was reported that Natynczyk, then a major-general in the Canadian Forces, was serving as the deputy commander of the U.S. army’s III Corps. As a result, he deployed with them for a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq, to a war Canada had taken great political pride in refusing to participate in.
The question of course was: How could Canada abstain from a conflict yet contribute such a senior officer to help conduct it?
In pursuit of the answer, I ventured into the American Green Zone in Baghdad to meet with Natynczyk in April 2004 in order to get his input on the debate.
Although somewhat surprised to have a Canadian visitor appear from outside the wire, Natynczyk clarified that officer exchanges between allied nations are a common practice and that, while so employed, the Canadian officers effectively become an integral part of the host nation for the duration of their assignment.
The reason Natynczyk was before the Commons committee last week was to defend a controversial clause in Canada’s proposed cluster bomb bill.
Prior to accepting the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which effectively condemns all use of such anti-personnel bomblets, the Conservative government wants to add a clause that would allow Canadian Forces personnel to participate in joint operations with U.S. forces, which do not intend to cease using cluster bombs.
America has steadfastly refused to sign the international convention, despite the fact unexploded cluster bomblets have created grievous civilian casualties in numerous recent conflicts.
During the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is estimated the U.S. air force dropped some 79,000 cluster bombs, which contained over 22million sub-munitions.
In his testimony, Natynczyk said that while that may have been the case, he was not aware of the employment of cluster bombs during his tour.
“I can say to you in confidence that I was never aware that cluster bombs were actually stocked in theatre, or that I participated in planning for their use or in fact authorized their use,” Natynczyk told the committee.
As chief of defence staff in 2008, Natynczyk issued a directive that banned members of the Canadian Forces from employing such munitions.
Despite his opposition to the use of cluster bombs, Natynczyk backed the inclusion of the interoperability clause for the simple reason that he believes we need to retain our close relationship with the United States.
However, when pressed by Liberal MP Marc Garneau about whether Canada’s advocating for an all-out ban of cluster bombs would be a deal breaker for Canada and U.S. relations, Natynczyk admitted he wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know enough of their thinking,” the retired general replied. “I can’t comment on this.”
In the late 1990s, Canada led the international convention prohibiting the use of landmines (known as the Ottawa Treaty), which has since been signed by more than 150 countries. These weapons are something else the U.S. does not intend to give up, yet we still appear to be enjoying good relations.
The fact cluster bombs, by their very nature, are intended to be indiscriminate area weapons makes them incredibly dangerous to civilian populations. That much is a proven fact.
Canada should ratify the convention as is, and insist on enforcing a caveat for any joint operations with U.S. troops whereby our soldiers cannot be forced to participate in actions where cluster bombs are employed.
The notion that we as a nation condemn such reckless disregard for innocent civilians — but if the Americans use cluster bombs then it’s permissible — is ridiculous.
And if our blanket condemnation of such dangerous weapons somehow jeopardizes our military relations with the U.S., then we need to revisit the parameters of that friendship.