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Canadian Military Under Fire For Planned Laser Purchase

By: Shane Ennerson

Technology Armed with legal advice that the systems can be classified as warning devices, the Canadian military wants to proceed with the purchase of laser weapons designed to temporarily blind people.

But a group opposed to the purchase of the equipment says any use of the so-called "laser dazzlers" in Afghanistan violates international law and sets a dangerous precedent.

The senior military leadership has recommended the purchase, and the $10-million project is now awaiting approval from Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Defence insiders say the military's lawyers examined the legalities of using the devices on Afghans, and concluded the systems are not laser weapons and can be deemed warning devices. MacKay is expected to approve the purchase. Used properly, the lasers are capable of 'disrupting' vision from 50 to 500 metres away.

But Anthony Salloum, program director at the Rideau Institute in Ottawa, said Canada would be violating its international obligations by using the dazzlers on Afghans. Canada has ratified a treaty that prevents the use of weapons that cause permanent blindness.

"These are laser weapons that can blind and, as tests by Penn State University have shown, can also cause second-and third-degree burns," said Salloum, whose institute has criticized the government and military's approach to the Afghanistan mission. It's also leading a campaign to halt the purchase of the dazzlers.

The lasers are capable of "disrupting" the vision of a person 50 to 500 metres away, depending on the model used. Some manufacturers say the systems are entirely safe, while other officials who know the weapons acknowledge they can injure or blind people - but only when improperly used at close range.

Salloum said the Canadian military's claim the dazzlers are simply warning devices sends a message to other nations, such as China, that such weapons are acceptable to use.

"Once Canada does this, it has set a dangerous precedent and opened up the field to other countries to do it," argued Salloum. "They'll be able to say, 'Well, Canada uses them, so why shouldn't we? We're just going to rename them as warning devices instead of calling them weapons'."

China has equipped its security forces with laser dazzlers for riot control, but has been criticized by human-rights groups for doing so.

Last August, it was reported that India's army planned to acquire dazzlers. An Indian government defence research centre had developed two such systems for use in counter-insurgency operations, according to news reports. Laser devices have been used in the past to disrupt optical systems on vehicles, aircraft and missiles. But the use of smaller laser dazzlers on people has been relatively limited.

In 2006, the U.S. military confirmed it's using dazzlers in Iraq, and officers have said the devices have helped save Iraqi lives.

The Canadian military wants to mount the dazzlers on rifles and vehicles, mainly for use in protecting convoys. It's hoped the systems could result in fewer Afghan civilians - who don't heed warnings to stop at checkpoints or to approach convoys - getting shot dead by soldiers.

Defence officials declined to be interviewed about laser dazzlers, but did issue an e-mail statement, which noted no approval has been given to acquire the systems. It did confirm, however, that the Canadian Forces is proposing to equip its troops in Afghanistan with such equipment.

"Laser dazzlers would allow our soldiers another non-lethal means to ensure that they have done all they can to warn Afghan civilian drivers and pedestrians from entering a critical zone in which deadly force could be used," reads the e-mail from department spokeswoman Jillian Van Acker.

"We are confident that the proposed use of laser warning devices would not contravene any provision of international humanitarian law applicable to Canada."

But Salloum questioned that claim.

To satisfy international obligations, Canada would be required to conduct various technical and medical tests to prove the weapons do not violate international law, he said.

"If these are so safe and so legal, then where is the evidence?" Salloum asked. "How come (Defence) is not releasing any of its reports and test materials to back up their claims?"

Scott McLeod of M.D. Charlton Company, a firm that hopes to bid on the program, said the dazzlers can save lives. Although such devices are not considered to be "eye safe," he noted that if used properly, they won't harm a person's sight.

He noted that under the Geneva Convention, lasers can't be used as weapons - only to mark targets and warn off individuals.

Freelance writer working for Dragonlasers at http://www.dragonlasers.com

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