The gathering was snubbed by key arms manufacturing nations - including the US, Russia, Israel and China - but organisers said other nations needed to forge ahead regardless to avoid potential humanitarian disasters caused by these types of bombs.

 

A declaration presented on the last day of the meeting urged nations to "conclude by 2008 a legally binding international instrument" to ban cluster bombs.

 

The treaty would "prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of those cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians," the declaration said.

 

Cluster bomblets are packed by the hundreds into artillery shells, bombs or missiles which scatter them over vast areas, some of which fail to explode immediately.

 

The unexploded bomblets can then lie dormant for years after conflicts end until they are disturbed, often by civilians.

 

Children victims

 

As many as 60 per cent of the victims in south-east Asia are children, the Cluster Munition Coalition said.

 

The weapons have recently been used in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Lebanon, it said.

 

The UN estimated that Israel dropped as many as 4 million bomblets in southern Lebanon during last year's war with Hezbollah, with as many 40 per cent failing to explode on impact.

 

Children can be attracted to the unexploded bombs by their small size, shape and bright colors, activists say.

 

Friday's declaration urged countries take steps at a national level before the treaty takes effect. Norway has already done so, while Austria announced a moratorium on cluster bombs at the start of the conference.

 

Non-binding

 

"It is non-binding. It is not a legal document. But it is a statement of political will," Steve Goose of the Human Rights Watch said of the declaration.

 

Norway hopes the treaty would be similar to one outlawing anti-personnel mines, negotiated in Oslo in 1997.

 

The US, China and Russia have refused to sign the land mine treaty and oppose the Norwegian initiative on cluster bombs. They did not send representatives to the meeting. Australia, Israel, India and Pakistan also did not attend.

 

Those nations say the weapons should be dealt with in other arenas, such as the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons, known as CCW.

 

Goose said the major powers don't need to be involved for the treaties to have an impact. Activists say the point is to stigmatize the weapons.

 

"If you need proof that you can conclude a treaty without the United States, Russia and China, look at the land mine treaty," he said.

" If you need proof that you can conclude a treaty without the United States, Russia and China, look at the land mine treaty "

-Steve Goose, Human Rights Watch

 

Goose said even though major powers have rejected the treaty, they have stopped deploying land mines, and that the number of civilian casualties has been cut in half since 1997.

 

Before the meeting, activist groups feared some countries would seek to water down, or even squash, a declaration by insisting on a longer or nonexistent deadline.

 

But Thomas Nash, a delegate from the Cluster Munition Coalition campaign group, said the first day of talks made it clear that there would be a declaration, with the 2008 deadline, even if some countries rejected it.