OTTAWA—Canadian troops could be complicit in the deaths of innocent civilians if the government proceeds with weak recommendations in the international treaty to ban cluster munitions, says Canada’s former lead negotiator.
Earl Turcotte resigned last month from Foreign Affairs after nearly 30 years in the public service, the last decade of which was dedicated to disarmament issues.
Turcotte broke his silence and told The Canadian Press in an exclusive interview Friday that he was removed as the government’s chief negotiator in part because he ran afoul of his superiors after senior U.S. officials complained he was too aggressive in cluster bomb treaty negotiations.
Turcotte also registered a “conscientious objection” to his bosses on how the government had planned to interpret a key provision of the Convention on Cluster Munitions — Article 21.
The provision covers joint operations between countries such as Canada, which are expected to ratify the treaty, and countries that will not — specifically, the United States.
Article 21 is intended to give legal protection to countries like Canada that take part in joint military operations with American forces — as has been the case in Afghanistan for much of the last decade, he said.
Turcotte said the true intent of the section is being subverted and would essentially “aid and abet” the continued use of cluster bombs.
In December, after two years of infighting, Foreign Affairs gave in to key Department of National Defence demands that would allow for an interpretation of Article 21 more in line with the U.S. position.
Turcotte said Canadian troops would never actually use cluster bombs, but could become party to their use by the U.S.
“Canada could be in part responsible for more civilian deaths because of the use of this weapon. That’s just, to me, morally and legally unacceptable. I simply couldn’t live with myself if I allow this go through unchallenged,” he said.
Turcotte would not give specifics about the internal debate because he said it would violate the oath of secrecy that bound his work in the public service.
“The two departments agreed but I did not agree,” he said of the December decision. “I brought forward a conscientious objection … and strongly denounced any recommendation going forth to ministers.”
As a result of that, as well as complaints from the U.S., Turcotte was told in January that he would be removed from his post as the chief negotiator, and that he would no longer be travelling to all international meetings.
“It was very clear to me that I had been marginalized. I was not being fired or demoted.”
Turcotte described how he was invited to a meeting by U.S. negotiators at their permanent mission to the United Nations in New York in October to discuss the ongoing talks on cluster munitions.
Since 2008, there have been parallel negotiations in the traditional UN forum for disarmament, which includes the U.S., Russia, India, China and other countries that have vast arsenals of cluster munitions.
“The gist of the meeting was, they ... in very clear terms asked me to stop being critical of the text that was currently on the table in the negotiations — instead of attacking it and characterizing it as being weak and ineffective, to characterize it as meaningful and significant and essentially to support (it),” he recalled Friday during a lengthy interview at his suburban Ottawa home.
“I said, in no uncertain terms, that I myself would do no such thing.”
Turcotte said he does not blame the Harper government for the current situation.
The controversy has been largely confined to the bureaucracy — the internal struggle between Foreign Affairs and the Defence Department in an attempt to craft a unified position that could be presented to the federal cabinet.
The current federal election will further delay Canada’s ratification of the treaty.
Canada was one of 108 countries to sign the cluster bomb treaty in December 2008, and it went into effect in August 2010 after being ratified by more than 50 countries.
But critics say the government is dragging its heels on tabling legislation in Parliament that would ratify the treaty, unlike its speedy adoption of the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines in the late 1990s.
Turcotte said Canada faces a different global geopolitical landscape compared with the 1990s, particularly its involvement in two “hot” wars in Afghanistan and Libya.
“We have Canadian Forces personnel coming home in body bags. We’re working very closely with our allies and the most important ally is telling us they need this weapon,” he said.
“In the inter-departmental debate, DND has prevailed. I think that they have gone too far and I believe they have done so largely to preserve what they consider to be the unique relationship that the Canadian military enjoys with the U.S. military.
“And I think they have been unduly influenced by their desire.”
After working in Asia during his two decades at the Canadian International Development Agency, Turcotte said he saw many tragic examples of how unexploded munitions left over from the Vietnam War have maimed innocent adults in children in Laos and Cambodia.
Now, Turcotte said he will fight for the cluster bomb treaty outside of government. He took a hit to his pension benefits by leaving the public service prematurely, but he has no regrets.
“In the end it was no contest. When we’re talking about a matter that literally could result in the death of civilians, that is much more important than the career of some mid-level public servant in Canada.”