BERLIN - Delegates from over 80 countries pledging to destroy their cluster bombs started a two-day conference in Berlin to assess progress since a 2008 agreement banning the weapons.
Absent however were the United States, Israel, Russia and Georgia -- countries which have used cluster bombs in recent years and which refuse to sign up the agreement. China, India and Pakistan also stayed away.
A cluster bomb is a weapon fired by artillery or dropped by aircraft that splits open and scatters multiple -- often hundreds -- of smaller submunitions, or bomblets, over a large area.
Often many of these bomblets fail to explode immediately and can lie dormant for many years, killing and maiming civilians -- many of them children -- long after the original conflict is over.
First employed by the German Luftwaffe on the English town of Grimsby in 1943 and by the Red Army the same year, their use really took off in the US bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1960s and 1970s.
Most recently they were deployed by both sides in Georgia's war with Russia in 2008, and in Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon in 2006, rights groups say, and by the United States and allies in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2001-02.
They were also put to deadly effect by NATO in Serbia in 1999, by the British in the Falkland Islands in 1982, during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, by Ethiopia and Eritrea, by Morocco and by Sudan, these groups say.
According to a 2006 report by Handicap International, there have been at least 11,000 recorded and confirmed post-conflict casualties and that the actual number -- levels of reporting being low -- may be as high as 100,000.
Around 98 percent of these are civilians, Handicap International says. A quarter of these are children, who often tragically mistake the bomblets for a toy.
Last year around 100 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan, agreed to ban their use, development, production, transfer and stockpiling, creating the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Our Summer Campaign Is Underway
Support Common Dreams Today
Independent News and Views Putting People Over Profit
Ten countries have since ratified the CCM. Once 30 have done so -- as campaigners hope they will by the end of 2009 -- the treaty comes into force, giving the 98 signatories eight years to destroy their stockpiles.
It also requires clearing areas of unexploded submunitions within 10 years, and establishes a framework for assistance to victims.
But the United States, which has as many as one billion cluster munition bomblets, rights groups say, has not signed up. And nor have China and Russia, both of which are thought to have around the same amount.
The US has argued that destroying its stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk, and that cluster bombs often result in less collateral damage than bigger bombs or larger artillery.
Other notable non-signatories include Israel, India, Pakistan, South Korea and North Korea, as well as Turkey, Georgia, Iran, Libya, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Sri Lanka.
Thomas Nash from the Cluster Munition Coalition, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, said he hoped the Berlin conference would encourage some to drop their opposition.
"Our main focus is to get as many countries to ratify as soon as possible, get more countries to sign on so that we remove the stigma from the treaty," Nash told AFP.
"And that means telling the US, telling other allies that haven't signed the treaty, that they need to get rid of it, that this weapon is a thing of the past. It is no longer a legitimate or morally appropriate weapon to have in your arsenal."