A key conference on cluster bombs began in Wellington on Monday with more than 100 countries expected to decide whether to formally back a treaty banning the controversial weapons.
The five-day conference is one of a series held as part of a Norwegian initiative launched in February last year which is set to culminate with the adoption of a treaty in Dublin in May.
About 83 nations have voiced their support for the move, but key countries such as China, Russia and the United States — the main manufacturers of the unitions — remain opposed to an outright ban.
Cluster bombs are especially deadly since they contain smaller bomblets which scatter over a wide area and which sometimes explode only decades after a conflict has ended, killing and maiming civilians.
The conference has been organised by the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), a global network of 200 civil society organisations including leaders from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
“After a year of remarkable progress to save lives, this is the moment of truth when countries must show their resolve and commit to negotiate the new treaty,” the coalition’s coordinator, Thomas Nash, told the conference.
Protecting civilians is a key element of the treaty, New Zealand’s Defence Minister Phil Goff said in an address to the opening session.
“The challenge before us is to build agreement among a sufficient mass of countries, including those who possess cluster munitions, to form a legally binding treaty to stop unacceptable harm to civilians,” he said.
More than 500 delegates from 122 states were represented at the conference, up from 46 nations represented in Oslo a year ago, he said.
New Zealand is one of six governments leading the Oslo process, along with Austria, Ireland, Mexico, Norway and Peru.
The CMC said France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom have been exerting diplomatic pressure to weaken the draft treaty by excluding certain weapons, including a transition period and allowing the use of cluster bombs in joint military operations with countries that don’t sign the treaty.
“Countries serious about saving lives will support the strong draft treaty before them. The treaty must not be weakened to pander to the interest of users, producers and stockpilers,” Human Rights Watch spokesman Steve Goose said.
The CMC estimated that at least 34 countries continue to produce cluster munitions, while 75 states hold significant stocks.
No official records exist of how many people have been maimed or killed by the weapons, but the non-governmental organisation Handicap International estimated about 98% of victims were civilians, usually children.
Cluster munitions stand out as the weapon that poses the gravest dangers to civilians since antipersonnel mines, which were banned in 1997, the CMC said.
They caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system and Israel’s widespread use of cluster bombs during the 2006 war in Lebanon caused more than 200 civilian casualties in the year following the ce