Cluster bombs are containers that burst open in the air and scatter thousands of "bomblets" over a wide area. These kinds of weapons have been used in wars and conflicts over the years in countries from Laos to Lebanon and Afghanistan.
The problem, says Lou Maresca of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is that they go on killing and maiming long after hostilities end.
"Large numbers of these bomblets fail to explode on impact with the ground as they were intended to do so," Maresca says. "The problem with that is that this then leaves a long-term humanitarian problem, because these weapons remain live and very dangerous weapons for years and even decades after the conflict has ended."
The campaign group Handicap International says some 5,500 civilians have been killed and more than 7,000 injured by cluster munitions in some two dozen countries since 1965. The most heavily affected is Laos, which accounts for about half the total number.
Men tend to be the most common victims, often injured or killed as they return to work in fields strewn with unexploded remnants of war.
And cluster munitions can present an insidious attraction for children, says Maresca.
Playing With Fire
"Children are often particularly attracted to the shape, size, and color of the bomblets in many places and this exposes them to a certain level of risk," Maresca says. "They tend to find these bomblets rather interesting and tend to manipulate them or pick them up or even play with them. So in many contexts we've seen, in addition to men, children as being a rather common and unfortunate victim of these weapons."
Efforts to ban cluster munitions have been going on for years. But the Israeli-Hizballah war in 2006 added momentum to the cause, when cluster munitions reportedly caused nearly 200 civilian casualties in Lebanon after hostilities ended.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a ban, and on the eve of the Dublin conference, Pope Benedict XVI added his voice.
"It is necessary to correct the errors of the past and avoid them being repeated in the future," the pontiff said. "I pray for the victims of cluster bombs and their families, as well as for those participating in the conference, with my best wishes for a successful outcome."
The last time the world saw a similar effort it led to the 1997 international ban on antipersonnel land mines. Now, campaigners hope cluster munitions, too, will face a similar fate.
Delegates from some 100 countries meeting in Dublin will try to finalize a text on a treaty by May 30. The ICRC and other campaign groups want a ban on cluster munitions' use, production, and stockpiling, as well as provisions for their clearance.
However, the Dublin meeting will have some big absentees -- notably Russia, China, and the United States. Washington has said it would prefer cluster munitions to be handled within ongoing talks to update an existing arms pact -- the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
Delegates also face some sticking points that could water down a treaty. Some countries want a transition period, while others want exemptions on certain types of cluster munitions that are designed to minimize civilian casualties.
And there's the question of "interoperability." Should countries that sign up to the treaty be able to hold joint military operations with others that still use cluster munitions?
Still, Maresca says he hopes the final text will be ready on May 30, signed by governments in December, and come into force soon after.
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