The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Cluster bomb bill in limbo after House rises, as opponents eye amendments

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OTTAWA - Opposition parties and non-governmental organizations are hoping Parliament's summer recess might buy time to amend a controversial bill that would see Canada join a treaty to ban deadly cluster bombs.

The bill, intended to make Canada a full party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, fell into limbo last week when the House of Commons adjourned for the summer. It could die outright if the Conservative government wipes the legislative agenda clean by proroguing Parliament over the summer.

Canada signed the convention in 2008, but the legislation to ratify it was introduced by the Conservatives just last year.

The bill, introduced in the Senate, passed second reading in the Commons less than a week before the summer recess. The bill was headed for hearings at the Commons foreign affairs committee.

The legislation has sparked criticism because it contains a provision that would allow the Canadian Forces to be involved in the use of cluster bombs in joint operations with the United States, which has opted out of the convention.

Opposition parties in both houses of Parliament, as well as a large coalition of non-governmental organizations and international groups, say that undermines the spirit and intent of the treaty — banning a dangerous military weapon that has proven particularly harmful to civilians.

A single cluster bomb contains hundreds of smaller, baseball-sized explosives that can lay dormant for decades, endangering innocent civilians — particularly young children, who are drawn to the brightly coloured bomblets.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said he'd rather see the treaty go unratified than proceed with a flawed piece of legislation.

"Unless the government is willing to amend it, I don't want to see it pass at all," Dewar said. "If they're willing to listen to reason and amend it, otherwise no, it's a matter of stopping it in its tracks."

Liberal Sen. Elizabeth Hubley, who led a failed bid for amendments in the upper chamber last year, agreed that it would be better that the bill not pass than become law in its current form.

"It just takes the spirit and the intent of the convention and completely destroys it," Hubley said. "Anything that would take this off the agenda, I would say that's good."

"We will start over."

Because it was introduced in the Senate, Hubley said there's a chance the bill could survive prorogation. Should it return to the upper house, she said she hopes the fight to amend it would find new life.

There is wide speculation that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will prorogue Parliament in order to hit the reset button on a raucous spring session that saw his government plagued by the Senate spending scandal and a plunge in the polls.

The Harper government has repeatedly defended the bill, arguing that it preserves the need for Canadian troops to work with those of their top ally, the U.S.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has called the proposed legislation "an honourable compromise."

But Hubley said the bill creates a "moral dilemma" for Canadian troops.

"If, on one hand, they know their country is against it, but on the other hand, they're permitted to use them, that is putting an unfair onus on our military."

Paul Hannon, the executive director of Mines Action Canada, said the bill in its current form "has the potential to discourage other countries from joining the treaty as well as sending mixed messages about Canada's commitment" to disarmament.

Hannon said he believes the government can be persuaded to amend the bill if it hears testimony from international experts at the Commons foreign affairs committee.

"Doing so would be consistent with our humanitarian traditions and long-standing practice of protecting innocent civilians from conflict," he said.

"It just takes a little courage from MPs to close the loopholes and gaps created by the drafters of the legislation."

In recent interviews with The Canadian Press, a senior diplomat from Norway and a lawyer with the International Committee of the Red Cross raised questions about whether the Canadian bill conforms to the spirit and intent of the convention.

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