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Cluster Bombs - Adjournment Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 12 May 2011

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (19:29): On 17 January 2008, a two-year-old child, Dokthjan Saynaydet, was playing with his brother and seven other boys in their home town in Laos. They chanced upon an unexploded cluster submunition, or bomblet, left over from the years of fighting that ravaged their country. The war was long over, but this relic remained. The submunition exploded, killing the child's brother and three of the other boys, leaving him and four other bloodied children screaming in pain and terror from shrapnel injuries.

In 1998, again in Laos, Phouvieng was digging in his garden and hit an unexploded cluster munition. It blew off his left arm and left leg. Fourteen-year-old Smajic found a cluster bomb in the woods while playing with friends in Bosnia in 1997. He lost his hand. Afghan student Rafeullah was 11 years old when he and his brother found a cluster bomb in 2002 which they believed to be a toy. It blew off his right hand. Zahra Soufan was also 11 when she found a cluster bomb, this time in Lebanon. She lost the fingers of her right hand.

In 2007 17-year-old Rasha was watching television in Lebanon when her sister brought in a sack of thyme their father had just harvested. She reached into the bag and to her surprise pulled out what appeared to be a white ribbon. The cluster bomb inside the bag exploded, tearing her left leg to shreds. In that same country in 2006 a 34-year-old fisherman pulled in his net and the cluster bomb that was caught in it exploded, blowing off his hands and blinding him for life. This father of four was left a total invalid.
These are the stories of the survivors; these are the 'lucky ones'. Every one of them was injured after the fighting in their country was over, and in some cases had been over for decades. Many, many more are killed and we do not know their names. Of the victims of submunitions from cluster bombs that do not explode on first impact, 98 per cent are estimated to be civilian. These weapons are indiscriminate. They remain a threat for decades after deployment. They are designed intentionally for maximum human casualties and maximum human suffering. As military doctrines have changed over the decades it has become apparent that these weapons are far more effective at killing children than they are at winning wars.

The Vietnam War ended 37 years ago but survivors of that war are still being harmed and killed by cluster munitions. There were 280 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos with an estimated 30 per cent failure rate, leaving approximately 80 million unexploded cluster bombs in that country alone. These weapons must be eradicated. Not reduced, not scaled back, not discouraged, but completely eliminated from the arsenals of every country in the world.

This chamber will shortly debate a bill which ostensibly ratifies the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty is an impressive legal document. Australia was at the front of the queue to sign it. We have played an important role in its creation and the treaty itself, as a tribute to many, many people who worked for a very long period of time, seeks to eliminate these weapons. It is a disarmament treaty. It bans the use, manufacture, stockpile, trade and investment with no exceptions. The first provision in the treaty is the most important: never under any circumstances. Proper adherence to this treaty expressly outlaws the presence of these weapons on Australian soil; it outlaws our military in assisting in the use of these weapons of indiscriminate destruction. Australia is one of the 108 countries that signed that treaty, and I am very proud to be part of that. The object and the purpose is universal disarmament.

Australia has had a long history, and often a proud one, in the creation of international treaties and arms control instruments of this kind. And so it is profoundly disturbing that the role of the Australian government in this treaty has been revealed to be so shameful. Senators are no doubt aware of the piece that ran in the Sydney Morning Herald by Philip Dorling on 2 May this year that exposed the role of the Australian government's covert manoeuvres with the United States authorities to weaken the treaty-an extraordinary betrayal of the ideals behind the treaty and of the people who have worked so hard to bring it into legal effect.

WikiLeaks has again shown another example of just why the government is expressing so much outrage about the document drops that are coming from WikiLeaks and just how valuable they are. Every now and again you overturn one of these diplomatic stones and look at what is going on underneath it. Diplomatic cables from the US embassy have revealed the Australian government told the United States government in 2007 that it was prepared to withdraw from negotiations on a global ban if key issues to the United States, because Australia does not deploy these weapons and we never have, were not addressed-principally the inclusion of a loophole to allow signatories-that is, us-to cooperate with military forces still using cluster munitions.

It was reported in that same report that our authorities lobbied Asian countries, including Vietnam-what an extraordinary irony there-on the issue and sought advice from Washington on which African countries in which these horrific devices have also been deployed might be recruited to vote with Australia on parts of the treaty text. What an extraordinarily ugly episode in modern Australian history.

The bill that will shortly be before the Senate is therefore the expression of those behind-the-scenes negotiations where Australia was effectively doing the dirty work of a party that is refusing to sign and ratify that treaty. There is Australia doing the dirty work of the United States, which still sees these devices as having utility, these weapons that drop from aircraft or are fired from ground forces that then disperse into multiple explosive devices that get left behind on the battlefield or in metropolitan or civilian areas.

The bill that the Senate will soon be debating allows the stockpiling and transfer of cluster bombs. It permits our forces to violate the spirit and intent of the treaty if the act involving cluster bombs is carried out in the course of a joint exercise with a non-party to the treaty, which is exactly what happened during Operation Desert Storm when we assisted the United States in the invasion of Iraq.

Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic said this bill could be interpreted to:

... allow Australian military personnel to load and aim the gun, so long as they did not pull the trigger.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser warns that the bill is 'scattered with alarming loopholes'. Former Australian Defence Force head Paul Barratt says this bill is now at odds with our obligations under international law. Some of us, perhaps naively-certainly naively-had assumed that perhaps it was sloppy drafting, that the Australian government was trying to be a little bit too cute. It has been revealed in the ugliest possible fashion that, no, it is entirely intentional and it is the result of a strategy.
Australia must not make, use, distribute or assist in the use of cluster bombs and we must not allow the funding of cluster bombs. Australia's Future Fund, in a welcome recent development, divested from companies connected to the manufacture of cluster munitions. This was a positive step, but it actually goes beyond what is required under the bill.

I would like to thank photojournalist John Rodsted, who is in the public gallery tonight, co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, for providing some of the stories of the survivors. And I would also like to congratulate the work of the Cluster Munition Coalition and their allies and friends and supporters for the work they have done in getting us to where we are today.

 
I have one final story. Soraj Ghulam Habib was 10 years old when he and his cousin came across a cluster bomb in Afghanistan. Soraj's legs were blown off and his cousin was killed. With his legs destroyed, covered in blood and unconscious, he was also believed to be dead. He was taken to the morgue, where his uncle realised he was still alive and rescued him. Soraj is here today and, through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I welcome him to the Australian Senate's public gallery. He has come to Australia to urge us to adopt laws that will make real progress towards the eradication of these weapons forever. Soraj is calling on all governments to take a strong stand and to ban cluster bombs, with no exceptions, which I think is nothing more nor less than the Australian public would have anticipated when we signed this treaty in the first place.

He has urged those who use, produce and transport munitions of this kind to stop and, in his words, 'to act as if your own children had such a distressed destiny'.
This is not a question of left or right; this is not something on which the crossbenchers plan to score political points off either of the major parties. It is a question of humanity against inhumanity. The Senate must fix this bill. We will shortly be given the opportunity to do just that. This is something that we are not looking back on in retrospect. This is not a proposal to amend an instrument that has already occurred or to come back and fix a mistake. We do have the opportunity before us, as parliamentarians and as representatives of a constituency that has not suffered the use of these weapons on Australian soil, to get this right the first time when we debate this bill shortly.

The signs from the government and from the opposition thus far are not encouraging, but for some reason I still have a certain amount of hope that perhaps we can get this right. When the bill is debated we will put some amendments forward that do no more nor less than what the expert witnesses who appeared before the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee recommended we do to bring the treaty into proper legal effect in Australia, as is happening overseas. I hope there is still time to get this right for the sake of people like Soraj, who have come to tell us their stories directly.

 

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