Diplomats from more than 100 nations agreed on a treaty Wednesday to ban current types of cluster bombs and require the destruction of stockpiles within eight years.
However, the talks did not involve the biggest makers and users of cluster bombs: the United States, Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan. And the pact leaves the door open for new types that could pick targets more precisely and contain self-destruct technology.
Cluster munitions, fired by artillery or dropped from aircraft, scatter dozens or hundreds of "bomblets" across an area as big as two football fields to attack concentrations of troops and vehicles.
They have been used with devastating impact on battlefields around the globe. But critics complain the explosives often fail to detonate and later inflict a terrible cost on civilians, from farmers who strike bomblets in their fields to children who mistake them for playthings.
The breakthrough on a ban capped more than a year of negotiations begun in Norway and pressed home over the past 10 days in Dublin. Nations are expected to sign the document in December in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.
Ireland and other lead sponsors plan to unveil the treaty Friday after it is translated into several languages.
A draft — obtained by The Associated Press as talks wound down with no major issues outstanding — declares that a signatory nation "undertakes never under any circumstances to use cluster munitions" nor "develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions."
Contribution to humanitarian law
Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said all 111 participating nations backed a draft treaty he called "a real contribution to international humanitarian law." He said it "is a very strong and ambitious text which nevertheless was able to win consensus among all delegations."
Martin predicted that the widespread support within the world community would put pressure on the U.S. and the other leading cluster-bomb makers to give them up, too.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said such weapons are an important part of the American arsenal.
"While the United States shares the humanitarian concerns of those in Dublin, cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility, and their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk," he said.
Moving negotiations along
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed the treaty, saying it was "in line with British interests and values, and makes the world a safer place."
Brown helped propel negotiators to a speedier deal by confirming earlier Wednesday that Britain would discontinue its use of two cluster munitions: one an Israeli-designed artillery shell, the other a U.S.-made rocket system for use on Apache attack helicopters. Britain previously had sought an exemption to continue using the helicopter-based weapon in particular.
Nonetheless, the draft treaty contains several concessions sought by the United States — a key absentee that still cast the biggest shadow over deliberations.
The pact would allow countries that sign the treaty to keep cooperating militarily with those that do not. Earlier drafts sought to prohibit such cooperation, but the U.S. and its NATO allies opposed that idea on the grounds it would complicate joint peacekeeping operations.
That section — nearly at the end of the 18-page document — makes it likely U.S. forces based in Europe will be able to maintain stocks of cluster bombs even in nations like Britain that sign the treaty.
A British diplomat, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said British officials had been in regular contact with U.S. counterparts throughout the Dublin talks. He said Britain intended to work with Washington to seek a gradual reduction in the U.S. military's heavy reliance on cluster munitions.
The treaty's detailed definition of what a cluster bomb is — and isn't — also will allow development of more advanced weapons.
It specifies that designs are permitted if each weapon contains fewer than 10 bomblets. Each bomblet would have to weigh more than 8.8 pounds, contain targeting technology designed to single out a target, and have built-in security measures that would defuse duds.
The self-destruct rule is meant to reduce the number of civilians killed or maimed by bomblets. Rights groups say tens of thousands of people have stumbled across unexploded bomblets and accidentally detonated them.
The treaty says any future cluster bomb must meet all of those requirements "to avoid indiscriminate area effects and the risks posed by unexploded submunitions."
Campaigners against the use of cluster bombs welcomed the treaty's commitment requiring signatories to fund projects that will clear up unexploded bomblets and support families and communities victimized by cluster munitions.
"We think this will make a huge difference to people around the world and it will save many lives and limbs," said Simon Conway, a former British soldier and mine-clearance expert who directs an umbrella group called the Cluster Munitions Coalition.
Concerns and disappointment
But they also expressed worries that the treaty concedes too many loopholes.
"We do feel some disappointment, because we have the feeling we missed the chance to make clear that (treaty supporters) should not assist other counties that are using cluster munitions," said Hildegarde Vansintjan, spokeswoman for Handicap International.
But Vansintjan, whose group has spent more than a decade helping people who have lost limbs, sight or other faculties in cluster-bomb explosions, is happy the pact provides for governments to help victims of cluster munitions.
"We are confident that many nations now will provide what the victims really need," she said