Representatives from some 100 countries meet in Oslo Wednesday to sign a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs, but major producers such as China, Russia and the United States are shunning the pact.
The treaty, agreed upon in Dublin in May, outlaws the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions which primarily kill civilians, and obliges signatory nations to help countries and individuals who fall victim to the weapon.
"It's only one of the very few times in history that an entire category of weapons has been banned," said Thomas Nash of the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC) umbrella group that comprises some 300 non-governmental organisations.
Dropped from planes or fired from artillery, cluster bombs explode in mid-air to randomly scatter hundreds of bomblets, which can be three inches (eight centimetres) in size.
Many cluster bomblets fail to explode, often leaving poverty-stricken areas trying to recover from war littered with countless de-facto landmines, which were themselves banned by a treaty signed in Ottawa in 1997.
According to Handicap International, about 100,000 people have been maimed or killed by cluster bombs around the world since 1965, 98 percent of them civilians.
More than a quarter of the victims are children who mistake the bomblets for toys or tin cans.
Sixteen-year-old Afghani Soraj Habib told AFP ahead of the Oslo meeting about his encounter with a cluster bomblet, which ripped off both his legs and one finger and killed his cousin.
Walking home one day in 2002 in the northwestern town of Herat, Habib found a US cluster munition lying on the sidewalk.
"I thought it was a food can. I tried to open it but I didn't manage. It exploded when I dropped it on the ground," he said
In Laos, the most affected country in the world, the US Air Force dropped 260 million cluster bombs between 1964 and 1973, or the equivalent of a fully-loaded B52 bomber's cargo dropped every eight minutes for nine years.
Dispersed in fields and pastures, the weapons make it perilous to cultivate the land and can claim numerous lives for decades after the end of a conflict.
"This treaty is historical," Habib said of the cluster bomb ban. "It will prevent other children from becoming like me."
The world's large cluster bomb makers and users, including the United States, Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan, have however objected to the ban and refused to sign it.
Eighteen of NATO's 26 members have meanwhile indicated they will sign the Oslo Treaty.
France, Britain and Germany will be represented by their foreign ministers, Bernard Kouchner, David Miliband and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Japan, Canada, Germany and Australia will also sign the treaty.
While the absence of key countries is likely to take some of the sting out of the ban, activists insist the Oslo Convention should nonetheless help stigmatise the use of cluster bombs even by non-signatory countries.
"Even big countries like Russia don't want to be associated in the media with having used cluster bombs," Nash said.
Going forward, "it's unlikely now that you're going to see large-scale use of cluster bombs," he added.