Switzerland has formally agreed to an international pact banning cluster bombs, moving the country closer to eliminating an inventory of around 200,000 munitions.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions, signed at a ceremony in Oslo on Wednesday, lacks the support of the world's big users and producers including the United States, China and Russia, who have so far refused to endorse the agreement.
Switzerland was one of 93 countries to sign the convention prohibiting the weapons, which are often blamed for maiming and killing civilians. The country has never deployed cluster munitions.
In a statement, Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey praised the treaty as "strong and ambitious" but cautioned that carrying it out could be difficult.
"The work of implementation will certainly be long and require considerable energy and resources on the part of all stakeholders," she said.
The signing, which the foreign ministry characterised as "an important milestone in the history of international humanitarian law", follows a failed attempt in November by the big three non-signatories and others including India, Pakistan and South Korea, to build consensus on an alternative pact that would have prohibited certain types of munitions.
While the majority of the world's countries, including big European players Britain, France and Germany, have agreed to the accord, states representing around one-half of the world's population have rejected it.
They include seven of the 14 countries known to have deployed cluster bombs and all but three countries in the Middle East.
Signatories have roughly eight years to get rid of their stockpiles although the spokesman for Switzerland's army told swissinfo that at this point it had no plan on how and where to dispose of the weapons.
The eight-year countdown for Switzerland begins after parliament ratifies the agreement, which should happen in 2009, according to foreign ministry spokesman Lars Knuchel. The country's Federal War Materials Act will also have to be amended, he said.
The agreement will formally bring to a close the ability of Switzerland's state-owned arms manufacturer, Ruag, to produce the weapons, although New York-based Human Rights Watch said Ruag last had a hand in cluster munitions production some years ago.
"The components were built in Switzerland or were imported from Israel," Mark Hiznay, a senior researcher with the non-governmental organisation, said. The firm's involvement in the assembly of the bombs ended in the late 1980s or early 1990s, he added.
Washington, Moscow and other non-signatories say cluster bombs have legitimate military uses such as repelling advancing troop columns. But according to the non-governmental organisation Handicap International, 98 per cent of victims are civilians and 27 per cent are children.
Cluster bombs, extensively used in the Vietnam War, are packed by the hundreds into artillery shells, bombs or missiles that scatter them over vast areas. Some fail to explode immediately.
The unexploded bomblets can then lie dormant for years until they are disturbed, often by children attracted by their small size and bright colours.
The Bush administration has said that a comprehensive ban would hurt world security and endanger US military cooperation on humanitarian work with countries that sign the accord.
Activists said ahead of the signing that they hope the treaty will nonetheless shame non-signers into shelving the weapons, as many did with landmines after a 1997 treaty banning them.
In November, a watchdog group reported that Greece, Turkey and Belarus had violated the treaty and another 15, including Britain, requested extensions to carry out their obligations.
"Price to pay"
Speaking in the Norwegian capital on Wednesday, Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), called the Oslo treaty a significant development of international humanitarian law but said it could only be considered a success so long as countries carried out their obligations, cleared affected areas and compensated victims.
"The ICRC is strongly urging states to ratify the treaty as quickly as possible," said Knut Doermann, the head of the organisation's legal division.
"It is also clear that if in future conflicts cluster munitions are used and human suffering is caused in the same magnitude as we have seen in the past, these states that continue to use them will have a political price to pay," he added.
The agreement will enter into force six months after the 30th ratification is delivered to the UN headquarters in New York.
"We think we have got a nice little race on to be among the first 30, the elite group of 30, who will help this treaty enter into force as rapidly as possible," said Steve Goose, co-chairman of the Cluster Munition Coalition advocacy group.
swissinfo, Justin Häne
Cluster munitions are large weapons deployed from the air or launched from the ground that release dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions.
Some 34 countries are known to have produced over 210 different types of cluster munitions. These include projectiles, bombs, rockets, missiles and dispensers.
At least 75 countries currently stockpile millions cluster munitions containing billions of individual sub-munitions.
A 2007 study published by Handicap International confirmed 13,306 deaths and injuries due to cluster munitions.
In Lebanon, up to 4 million sub-munitions were delivered in 5 weeks in 2006. Hundreds of thousands did not explode on impact.
During the Kosovo conflict, up to 290,000 sub-munitions were delivered in 11 weeks. Approximately 30,000 failed to explode.
Some 270 million sub-munitions were released over Laos from 1964 to 1973. An estimated 9-27 million did not explode.
Also known as the Oslo process, the Cluster Munitions Process was launched in February 2007 when a group of 46 states agreed to the Oslo Declaration.
This committed them to "conclude by 2008 a legally binding international instrument that prohibits the use and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians and secures adequate provision of care and rehabilitation to survivors and clearance of contaminated areas".
Before the final negotiations in Dublin there were conferences in Oslo (February 2007), Lima (May 2007), Vienna (December 2007) and Wellington (February 2008).