When considering the Australian Government's position on banning cluster bombs, the Two-Face character from the Batman movie springs to mind. Unfortunately, the reality of cluster bombs is not fictional like the character, or the government's commitment to upholding the spirit and intent of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The honourable and humanitarian face that Australia likes to show to the world is marred by the subversion and sabotage of the treaty, that then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith so proudly signed and said that Australia would support. In explaining this Janus-faced hypocrisy, it is important to flag that there are two concurrent issues, which fit hand in glove, to increasingly expose Australia's lack of dedication to the global ban of this indiscriminate legacy weapon.
You don't have to meet a cluster bomb survivor to know that there is a serious problem when 85% of a weapon system's victims are civilians. And in the act of signing the treaty to ban cluster bombs in August 2008, Australia seemed to recognise this, committing to respect the object of the treaty in both its domestic legislation and its interaction with other states. In flagrant disregard of this commitment, Australia is doing precisely the opposite, actively undermining the treaty both nationally and internationally. This is played out domestically by draft cluster ban bill that is riddled with loopholes. On a global level this has recently been demonstrated by expressed support of a protocol (in a separate convention) that threatens to undermine the high humanitarian norms already established in international law by the cluster bomb treaty...but more on this in a moment.
First it is important to explain, that far from working to eliminate the use, manufacture, stockpile and transit of cluster munitions and to prevent assistance to non-state parties in any of these activities, Australia's draft cluster ban bill permits stockpile, transit and direct assistance in joint-operations where cluster bombs are deployed.
Again the Two-Faced character comes to mind. There is no better way to sum up the government's position on cluster bombs then a misleading fusion of contradictory ideals.
Instead of showing strong leadership in the Asia-Pacific region, the loopholes in our proposed legislation would make it the weakest to date setting a low precedent for others to follow. We have never stockpiled so why start now? Why would Australia flout its responsibilities by including these weak provisions? From looking closely at the loopholes, you can find a trail back to an obvious truth, Australia is playing lapdog, pandering to the United States.
It was announced at the AUSMIN conference in September that defence ties between the United States and Australia would be significantly beefed up, including the expansion of US bases on Australian soil. The United States, which has not joined the treaty to ban cluster bombs, would be allowed to stockpile clusters in Australia and transit them across our territory. Additionally, our troops by law could be involved in every step of a cluster bomb operation bar pulling the trigger.
This coupled with comments made by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, at the AUSMIN meeting, signals that an arms race is becoming increasingly likely. Mr Panetta was quoted in The Australian saying, "The enhancement of the relationship between the alliance partners was intended to send a 'very clear signal' to the Asia-Pacific region...to make very clear to those that would threaten us that we are going to stick together."
What will our closest neighbours think of these aggressive 'defensive' statements? Indonesian representatives were alarmed to learn of the loopholes in our cluster bomb draft legislation at the second meeting of states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Lebanon in September. Australia, the country with no direct enemies is compromising itself, through its unwavering support of the United States and its unwillingness to oppose its ally when it comes to a complete ban on cluster munitions.
Earlier this year, former chief of the Australian Defence Force General Peter Gration spoke out against Australia's proposed ban bill to the ABC, describing the concerns of Australian military personnel as follows:
"One, that we weren't all that serious initially and we are more concerned with our relations with the US, and secondly, the example it may set to other countries around the world watching what we do."
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