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Q&A: Cluster bomb treaty

Campaigners are hailing moves by more than 100 countries to sign a landmark treaty in Norway to ban current designs of cluster bombs.

The BBC's defence correspondent Rob Watson looks at key issues around the controversial weapons.

Bomblets
Cluster bombs have been used in Cambodia, Lebanon and Kosovo
Campaigners are hailing the treaty as a major breakthrough.

Richard Moyes of the Cluster Munition Coalition, a global alliance of some 300 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), calls it "the biggest humanitarian treaty of the last decade".

Certainly the treaty is ambitious in scope. Not only does it ban the stockpiling, use and transfer of virtually all existing cluster bombs, but it also provides for the clearing up of countries littered with unexploded munitions. And all of it to be achieved within the next eight years.

What are cluster munitions?

The weapon itself is hardly a recent invention.

First developed by the Soviet Union and Germany at the end of World War II, cluster munitions are bombs, rockets and artillery shells that disperse smaller sub-munitions over broad areas.

Their purpose was, and remains, to slow down large advancing armies.

Since then, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition, at least 15 countries have used them and there are now literally billions of sub-munitions held in the arsenals of some 76 nations.

Why are they controversial?

Although some countries argue cluster munitions still have continued military utility, critics say they are outmoded and immoral.

They are regarded as outmoded because of the urban nature of many modern wars, and as immoral because of the failure of some sub-munitions to explode initially. Many of those munitions later kill or injure civilians who pick them up or tread on them.

Will the treaty be effective?

Campaigners certainly hope the treaty will signal the end of this particular weapons system.

A Laotian cluster bomb victim and a campaigner at a visitor centre in Vientiane 19/10/2008
Cluster bombs carry a high civilian toll as many fail to explode initially
Although most of the world's biggest stockpilers will not sign the treaty - including the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel - backers argue the treaty will stigmatise the use of cluster bombs even for those who do not sign up.

They say that was the pattern with the landmine treaty, which many stockpilers also failed to sign.

Arms control advocates also draw encouragement from the relatively rare use of cluster munitions in recent years. The US, for example, has not used them in almost six years.

But others are less confident, pointing to the use of cluster munitions by Russia and Georgia last summer just months after the cluster munitions treaty had been agreed in Dublin.

Is this the end of cluster munitions?

Certainly a complete end to the use of cluster-type munitions seems unlikely.

Indeed the treaty seems to recognise that explicitly by allowing for the development of more sophisticated munitions that have greater precision and very low failure rates.

Many military experts say that in the end most commanders would be reluctant to give up such a weapon, particularly those from countries facing the prospect of larger enemy armies.

But this treaty almost certainly does mark the beginning of the end for the old "dumb" cluster munitions that have caused so many civilian casualties in so many conflicts around the world for the last 50 years.

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