Australia secretly worked with the United States to weaken a key international treaty to ban cluster bombs, leaked US diplomatic cables show.
Despite taking a high-profile stance against cluster munitions – condemned as the cause of large numbers of civilian casualties – Australia was privately prepared to pull out of international negotiations on a global ban of the weapons if this threatened ties with US forces.
The US continues to use cluster munitions as ”a legitimate and useful weapon”, including in Afghanistan, and has affirmed that it will not sign the treaty to ban them. The disclosure comes as Federal Parliament prepares to consider a bill to ratify Australia’s signature of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The draft legislation has attracted sharp criticism from non-government organisations for not matching the spirit of the treaty. One US group complained the legislation could be interpreted to ”allow Australian military personnel to load and aim the gun, so long as they did not pull the trigger”.
Diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Canberra – leaked to WikiLeaks and provided exclusively to the Herald – reveal Kevin Rudd’s newly elected government in 2007 immediately told the US it was prepared to withdraw from the negotiations if key ”red line” issues were not addressed – especially the inclusion of a loophole to allow signatories to the convention to co-operate with military forces using cluster bombs.
Opened for signature in Oslo in December 2008, the convention prohibits the use, transfer and stockpile of cluster bombs – weapons that deliver numerous smaller bombs into a target area. Cluster munitions have been condemned by humanitarian groups for remaining as explosive hazards for decades after the end of military conflicts.
The US embassy in Canberra expressed appreciation in February 2008 for Labor’s position, which was considered critical to efforts to defeat ”hardline” countries and non-government organisations which were seeking a comprehensive ban.
The US diplomatic reports show Australia secretly lobbied Asian countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, on the issue and Canberra sought advice from Washington regarding which African countries engaged in military co-operation with the US might be recruited to vote with Australia on key parts of the treaty text.
In December 2007, the US embassy reported that the then foreign affairs minister, Stephen Smith, and the defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, had agreed to such a negotiating position.
In April 2008, a Foreign Affairs arms control expert, Dr Ada Chueng, told the US embassy that Australia ”shared US frustration and concern with Germany’s obstinacy” on the issue of defence co-operation, and that Australia would make formal representations to Berlin once the US had provided Canberra with ”specific” points to raise.
Along with Britain, Canada and Japan, Australia was ultimately successful in securing the desired loophole on defence co-operation.
Foreign Affairs officials informed US diplomats that while Australian troops would not be permitted to use cluster munitions, personnel would be free to participate in ”tactical planning” for the deployment of such weapons.