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Conference seeks to ban cluster bombs

An international conference looking to ban the production and use of cluster bombs opens Monday in Dublin, but the world's largest producers and users of the munitions - which kill and maim thousands each year - will be absent.

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Envoys from around 100 countries are to gather in Dublin on Monday for a 12-day conference aimed at clinching an international treaty banning cluster munitions.

The negotiations should hammer out a wide-ranging pact that would completely wipe out the use, production and stockpiling of cluster bombs by its signatories.

But notable absentees from the Dublin Diplomatic Conference on Cluster Munitions, which concludes on May 30, include China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the United States: all major producers and stockpilers.

Following meetings in Lima, Vienna and Wellington, the Dublin gathering will thrash out a definitive agreement, to be signed in Oslo on December 2-3. Signatories would then need to ratify it.

The process, started by Norway in February 2007, has taken the same path as the landmark 1997 Ottawa Treaty ban on anti-personnel landmines: going outside the United Nations to avoid vetoes and seal a swift treaty.

Cluster munitions are among the weapons that pose the gravest dangers to civilians.

Dropped from planes or fired from artillery, they explode in mid-air, randomly scattering bomblets. Countries are seeking a ban due to the risk of civilians being killed or maimed by their indiscriminate, wide area effect.

They also pose a lasting threat to civilians as many bomblets fail to explode on impact.

"The use of these weapons has terrible humanitarian consequences," said new Foreign Minister Micheal Martin of hosts Ireland.

"It is my sincere hope that the outcome will be a convention prohibiting the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians."

The conference is being staged at Croke Park, Ireland's largest stadium and the 82,300-capacity home of Gaelic sports.

"It will be the biggest disarmament and humanitarian treaty to be signed in more than a decade," said Thomas Nash, coordinator of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), an umbrella group of non-governmental organisations.

"We will be preventing the sort of crisis that emerged from landmines before it even happens," he told AFP.

"Rather than only being able to respond to problems, we're taking decisive steps to prevent catastrophe when we see it coming."

The draft convention obliges that signatories never:

"(a) Use cluster munitions;

"(b) Develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions;

"(c) Assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a state party under this convention."

Signatories would have six years to destroy their stockpiles.

It also includes provisions for the welfare of cluster bomb victims and for cleaning up affected areas.

Some countries are looking to water down the wording, chiefly Britain, Nash said. Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland are among the other states seeking amendments.

Various states are seeking exemptions on certain types of cluster weapons, more time to dismantle their arsenals, looser language on assistance -- for example in joint military operations -- or transition periods in which they could still be used.

"As it stands, the draft treaty is a strong, comprehensive ban. Any attempts to water it down should be rejected completely," said Steve Goose of the Human Rights Watch organisation.

"Those kinds of revisions will only undermine the intended purpose of the ban, which is to save lives."

The CMC hopes the ban would stigmatise the use of cluster munitions by non-signatories -- as has happened with landmines -- and thus increase pressure on those countries to reduce or stop using them themselves.

Cluster munitions caused more civilian casualties in Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003 than any other weapon system.

Israel's widespread use of cluster bombs during the 2006 war in Lebanon caused more than 200 civilian casualties in the year following the ceasefire, the CMC said.

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