"We must now establish concrete measures that will put an end to the untold human suffering caused by cluster munitions," Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said in a statement. "Norway will organize an international conference in Oslo to start a process toward an international ban on cluster munitions that have unacceptable humanitarian consequences."
Stoere said Norway was forced to act because of the failure of an arms-control conference in Geneva this week to move against the weapons. The use of cluster bombs has provoked an international outcry, with calls for action coming from the European Union, the United Nations and the international Red Cross.
In the conference Australia, Britain, China, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia and the United States all rejected beginning negotiations on cluster munitions, according to campaign groups. Instead, most of them backed a British suggestion that further discussion take place within the framework of the 1980 U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons, known as CCW.
Ronald Bettauer, who headed Washington's delegation to the conference, said the U.S. recognizes cluster bombs are an important humanitarian issue, but was disappointed with Norway for inviting countries to negotiate the issue outside the CCW.
Norway's move is the biggest step yet in the campaign against the bombs, which has picked up steam since Israel scattered hundreds of thousands of bomblets — many left unexploded — in southern Lebanon during its monthlong war against the militant group Hezbollah.
Cluster bomblets, which can be as small as a flashlight battery, are packed into artillery shells or bombs dropped from aircraft. A single container fired to destroy airfields or tanks and soldiers typically scatters some 200 to 600 of the mini-explosives over an area the size of a football field.
The United Nations has estimated that Israel dropped as many as 4 million of the bomblets in southern Lebanon, with perhaps 40 percent of the submunitions failing to explode on impact.
Those that do not explode right away may detonate later at the slightest disturbance, experts say. Children are especially vulnerable because the bomblets are often an eye-catching yellow with small parachutes attached.
"Every day there are reports of new victims of cluster munitions. There is every indication that the problem will only get worse," Stoere said.
"I will now invite countries that have shown an interest and a will to take urgent action to address the cluster munition problem," he added. "We are pleased to note the increasing calls for an international ban."
No international treaty, including the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war, specifically forbids the use of cluster bombs. However, the Geneva Conventions outline laws protecting civilians during conflict. Because cluster bomblets often cause civilian casualties after conflicts end — much like land mines — their use has been heavily criticized by human rights groups.
"The proposal for mere discussions in the CCW is at best a go-slow approach to a looming humanitarian catastrophe," said Steve Goose, director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch's arms division.
Thomas Nash of the London-based Cluster Munition Coalition said it was regrettable that "after five years of talks, states have failed to ban a weapon that continues to maim and kill civilians during use and long after the conflict is over."
The bombs, a descendant of the "butterfly bomb" dropped by Nazi Germany on Britain in World War II, were first used by the U.S. in the Indochina War, and most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similar weapons were used by Soviet and Russian troops in Angola, Afghanistan and Chechnya, where leftover duds also continue to inflict casualties.
Earlier this month, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland demanded countries place an immediate moratorium on the use of the bombs and the international Red Cross said countries should immediately end the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions because the indiscriminate deaths they cause outweigh any military advantages.
Complicating the problem is the growing risk that militant groups pose. Human Rights Watch also has cited cluster-bomb use by Hezbollah against targets in northern Israel, spurring fears that the weapons are becoming more easily accessible for rogue militias and terrorists.
U.S. officials said earlier this month they would resist any attempts to have cluster bombs put on the agenda. The officials, who refused to be quoted by name for policy reasons, insisted that cluster munitions have an important military use, such as for attacking artillery positions or runways, armor columns and missile installations. They say improvements in the reliability of the weapons, and not an absolute ban, should be a priority.
An attempt in September by congressional Democrats to stop the U.S. military from using cluster bombs near civilian targets was defeated.