Handicap International says about 100,000 people have been killed or maimed by cluster bombs since 1965.
Norway, which played a key role in hammering out the worldwide ban on using, producing, transferring and stockpiling cluster munitions, was the first country to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) on Wednesday.
Jonas Gahr Stoere, the Norwegian foreign minister, said: “This is a historic day when a majority of states are committing to ban cluster munitions, making a new international norm that will make a considerable difference for thousands and thousands of people all over the world.”
Nations at the conference also called on major arms producers such as China, Russia and the United States to join them in signing the treaty.
Dropped from warplanes or fired from artillery guns, cluster bombs explode in mid-air to randomly scatter hundreds of bomblets.
Many bomblets fail to explode, littering war zones with de facto landmines that can kill and maim long after a conflict ends.
The group Handicap International (HI) says about 100,000 people have been killed or maimed by cluster bombs worldwide since 1965, 98 percent of them civilians.
More than a quarter of the victims are children who often mistake the bomblets for toys or tin cans.
Richard Moyes of the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), an umbrella group that comprises some 300 non-governmental organizations, said: “The world is a safer place today. This is the biggest humanitarian treaty of the last decade.”
Laos, the country most affected by cluster bombs, was the second nation to sign Wednesday’s treaty at Oslo city hall.
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. air force dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Laos, or the equivalent of a fully-loaded B-52 bomber’s payload dropped every eight minutes for nine years.
Over two days, dozens of countries, including Britain, Canada, France and Germany, are to sign the treaty, which was finalized in Dublin in May.
The final number of signatory states will only be known at the end of the ceremony on Thursday.
“We hope to see more states signing in the coming weeks, the coming months, the coming years,” Stoere said.
However, the world’s biggest producers and users of cluster bombs have refused to sign the ban.
“Of course, [the treaty] would have been a stronger instrument if we had the U.S., Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan and India on board,” Stoere said.
“But we’re creating a new norm and we’re going to take away a huge market for the producers.”
Washington reiterated its opposition to the ban on Tuesday.
“Although we share the humanitarian concerns of states signing the CCM, we will not be joining them,” the State Department said in a statement when asked for its views on the signing ceremony.
“The CCM constitutes a ban on most types of cluster munitions. Such a general ban on cluster munitions will put the lives of our military men and women, and those of our coalition partners, at risk.”
Despite the absence of key countries, opponents of cluster bombs say the Oslo Convention treaty should help stigmatize the use of such weapons even by non-signatory countries.
“The treaty places moral obligations on all states not to use cluster munitions,” said Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.
Moyes said: “The treaty will increase the political cost of using these weapons for any country, even countries that don’t sign will struggle to use these weapons in the future.”
The CMC is hopeful that the U.S. position will shift when U.S. president-elect Barack Obama moves into the White House on Jan. 20.
In 2006, Obama voted in the U.S. Senate to ban the use of cluster munitions in heavily populated areas, but in the end the motion was rejected.
— From Aljazeera English