THE HAGUE -- More than 80 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world launched a campaign on Thursday to ban cluster bombs, which are widely used, including by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cluster bombs are designed to widely scatter smaller explosive charges which, in theory, detonate when they hit their target, causing horrific injuries.
But experts estimate between five and 30 percent of these bomblets do not explode immediately on contact and continue to put innocent lives at risk, notably children, long after a conflict has ended.
The Cluster Munitions Coalition, which including NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Handicap International, said in a statement it wanted the production and trade of cluster bombs to be banned "until their humanitarian problems have been resolved".
The coalition also wants countries who use cluster bombs to be obliged to clear those that do not explode and provide assistance to victims.
"We joined together because the lack of restriction in the use of cluster bombs is taking a toll that is unacceptable," Paul Hannon, director of Mines Action Canada, said at the launch of the campaign in The Hague.
Fifty-eight countries possess cluster bombs in their weapons arsenal. The United States, China and Russia hold the largest stocks.
Later this month, international negotiations are due to take place in Geneva on extending the United Nations' 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons to cover so-called "unexploded remnants of war".
But Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, whose country is chairing the negotiations, told the launch many of the governments who possess cluster bombs were opposed to any constraints on their use.
He said it was unlikely that nations with cluster bombs would agree at present to any moratorium on their production, trade or use.
"I believe this is not currently attainable," he said. "Even a provision on technical specifications is too far-reaching in the eyes of other countries at this point in time."
The Cluster Munitions Coalition deplored the stance taken by these countries, pointing out that cluster bombs could be as devastating as landmines, which are banned under a UN treaty.
"These unexploded munitions act essentially like anti-personnel mines," said Hannon from Mines Action Canada. "These explosive remnants destroy lives long after conflict has ended and they impede reconstruction."
In Afghanistan 127 people were victims of cluster bombs in the 13 months form October 2001, when the United States began a bombing campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Nine out of ten victims were under 18, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The US-led war on Iraq might have ended over six months ago but cluster bombs remained an extremely serious problem there, according to Steve Goose, executive director of HRW's arms division.
"The situation in Iraq is particularly grave," he told the launch. "We estimate ... tens of thousands of unexploded munitions have been left behind."
Handicap International cited the case of Wahid, a 12-year-old Iraqi who picked up a strange metal object near his house in Kerbala, several weeks after the end of the war.
When it exploded it tore off his right hand, irreparably shattered three fingers on his left, and embedded scores of metal fragments in his skull and one leg.
A number of NGOs in the Cluster Munitions Coalition are also members of the Nobel-winning Campaign to Ban Landmines, which recently bemoaned Washington's continuing refusal to sign the UN Mine Ban Treaty.
© Copyright 2003 Agence France-Presse