BRUSSELS, Belgium (IPS) — The United States is leading efforts to resist a complete ban on cluster bombs, human rights activists charge.

But a conference called by European governments in Brussels Oct. 30 is regarded as a step towards an international agreement on eliminating cluster weapons, in which hundreds of small “bomblets” are packed together.

Although an accord appears likely to be reached during 2008, activists are concerned that Washington is maneuvering to ensure that it will not be too stringent. Representatives of the U.S., the world’s number one user of cluster munitions, have been holding bilateral discussions with some European governments recently in a bid to water down any potential accord. The Bush administration has observer status at the Brussels conference, though it is a European-led initiative.

In February this year, a number of governments and humanitarian organizations joined forces in Oslo, Norway, to urge that a legally binding international accord on banning these weapons be finalized in 2008.

“Almost 90 countries have joined the Oslo process,” said Stan Brabant from Handicap International, one of the groups most vociferous in opposing cluster bombs.

“We believe it is a very strong process, that it’s unstoppable,” he told IPS. “Have the U.S. efforts been successful? So far, not really. But we shall keep a very close eye on what they are doing.”

Branislav Kapetanovic, a former member of the Serbian army, lost his arms and legs in an accident in November 2000 while he was trying to clear cluster bombs dropped by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) the previous year. His hearing was also damaged, and he was blinded for several months.

“These weapons are monstrous, and they cannot be controlled,” he said. “A total ban is the only way to go. No exceptions, no excuses.”

Cluster bombs were the focus of international attention again during the war in Lebanon last year. In the last 72 hours of that conflict, the Israeli military used about 4 million cluster sub-munitions.

Because cluster bombs can lie undetected long after they have been discharged, they are known to continue killing even when a war is over.

In the month after the Aug. 14, 2006, ceasefire in Lebanon, cluster bombs caused an average of three casualties each day. Two casualties were caused each day on average for the remainder of the year. Many of the victims were simply walking through their village.

In Iraq, a minimum of 50 million sub-munitions have been used in U.S.-led operations between 1991 and 2006. About 3,000 casualties have been directly attributed to these weapons.

Within Europe, Britain, Germany and France have sought that the future agreement should provide exceptions for their weapons. Belgium, Norway, Hungary and Austria, on the other hand, have all taken steps to eliminate cluster bombs by introducing moratoria or bans on them.

All rights reserved, IPS 2007.