The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) demanded on Monday that the world immediately stop using cluster bombs as the indiscriminate civilian deaths caused by the weapons far outweigh any possible military advantages.
That call was echoed yesterday by the UN's top humanitarian official, who demanded an immediate moratorium on the use of cluster bombs.
"As long as there is no effective ban, these weapons will continue to disproportionately affect civilians, maiming and killing women, children, and other vulnerable groups," UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said.
``This freeze is essential until the international community puts in place effective legal instruments to address urgent humanitarian concerns about their use,'' Egeland said in an address to countries meeting in Geneva to review a 26-year-old treaty controlling conventional weapons.
On Monday the ICRC said it was stepping up its campaign against the weapons as a result of Israel's unprecedented use of them during its month-long war with Lebanon this summer. Russia and the US have also resisted moves to eliminate the weapons.
"The problems associated with cluster munitions are not new," said Philip Spoerri, director of international law for the ICRC, which is widely seen as the guardian of the Geneva Convention on conduct in war.
"In nearly every conflict in which they have been used, significant numbers of cluster munitions have failed to detonate as intended and have instead left a long-term and deadly legacy of contamination," he said.
Cluster bomb projectiles -- or submunitions about the size of an orange or a soft-drink can -- are packed into artillery shells or bombs dropped from aircraft. One cluster bomb container fired to target airfields or tanks and soldiers typically scatters some 200 to 600 of the explosives over an area the size of a football field.
Human rights groups have estimated that Israel dropped cluster bombs containing as many as 4 million bomblets in Lebanon during its war against Hezbollah.
Usually 10 to 15 percent -- but in some cases up to 80 percent -- of the devices fail to explode immediately. Those that do not explode right away may detonate later at the slightest disturbance.
The impact on children is especially bad as the tiny bombs are usually an eye-catching yellow with little parachutes attached.
"It is simply unacceptable that [civilians] should return to homes and fields littered with explosive debris," Spoerri said.
"The ICRC believes that the time has come for strong international action to end the predictable pattern of human tragedy associated with cluster munitions," he said.
The ICRC also said that casualty data from Kosovo showed that cluster bomb submunitions had claimed five times as many victims among children under 14 as had land mines.
While mine victims often survived, the stronger explosive force of cluster bombs means they were much more likely to lead to death.