A global treaty outlawing cluster bombs came into force today in what disarmament campaigners hailed as a major landmark in the drive to stamp out use of the deadly devices.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions -- banning the stockpiling, use and transfer of virtually all cluster bombs -- took effect six months after 30 countries ratified the treaty, which was signed in 2008 by 107 countries.
The agreement outlaws munitions that scatter multiple smaller devices over a large area and that have become notorious for maiming civilians and children.
The treaty's rejection by the United States, Russia, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan -- countries widely thought to possess and manufacture the bulk of the weapons -- may dilute its practical impact.
Nevertheless, the agreement -- which also requires the clearing up of unexploded bombs -- has won the support of leading antimunitions campaigners as well as Pope Benedict XVI and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Steve Goose, from international rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, suggests that even nonsignatories will be embarrassed against using the weapon in future because it has been "stigmatized" by the treaty:
"We think that they are going to feel the power of this new convention," Goose says. "We think that the convention is stigmatizing the weapon all around the world and that states will be reluctant to ever use it again,"
The United States -- which has 800 million of the bomblets, the world's biggest stockpile -- says it will outlaw cluster bombs from 2018.
Britain, France, Germany, and Japan -- all of which have significant stocks -- have ratified the convention.
Thomas Nash of the Cluster Munition Coalition, a network of 200 civil-society organizations, hails the agreement as a landmark and welcomes its commitment to clear up unexploded devices:
"This is the most significant piece of international humanitarian law to enter into force since the land-mine ban 10 years ago," Nash says. "From this moment on, countries have a legal obligation to assist the victims."
The treaty requires signatories to destroy stockpiled cluster munitions within eight years, clear contaminated areas within 10 years, and help affected communities and survivors.
The pope expressed his "satisfaction" with the initiative after delivering prayers at his summer residence in Castelgandolfo, south of Rome.
"My first thoughts go to the many victims who have suffered and continue to suffer serious physical and moral damage, including the loss of life, because of these insidious devices," Benedict said.
UN chief Ban said the treaty highlighted the world's "collective revulsion at these abhorrent weapons."
"This new instrument is a major advance for the global disarmament and humanitarian agendas and will help us to counter the widespread insecurity and suffering caused by these terrible weapons, particularly among civilians and children," he said.
Killing Civilians, Children
More than two dozen countries have been affected by cluster bombs and activists say three out of five casualties occur during day-to-day activities. Many victims are children. Some are killed when they mistake the munitions for playthings.
Handicap International, a charity, estimates that 98 percent of cluster-bomb victims are civilians and nearly one-in-three are children.
Campaigners have pinpointed the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon as a turning point in getting the device banned. According to UN estimates, Israel dropped 4 million cluster munitions on southern Lebanon during the last three days of the war.
The United States is believed to have dropped an estimated 260 million cluster bombs during the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1973.
It is thought that around 30 percent failed to explode on impact, and over two-thirds of the country is still contaminated. Experts say they kill or injure about 300 people a year.
compiled from agency reports