The Netherlands has ordered its military to stop using cluster bombs until further notice.
"Cluster munitions can have major effects on the civilian population and can cause great humanitarian suffering," the foreign and defense ministers wrote in a joint letter to parliament in response to an appeal from the Dutch Red Cross.
The weapons generally are shells or bombs that can scatter hundreds of bomblets over an area the size of a soccer field.
The government did not order the air force to clear all cluster bombs from its armories, but instructed it to stop using them. The ban, however, remains conditional.
"The government believes that possessing cluster munitions is legitimate and that use of these munitions in certain situations, after careful consideration is justified," the ministers said. Parliament would immediately be informed if that situation arose.
No international treaty specifically forbids the use of cluster bombs. However, the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war prescribes the protection of civilians during conflict.
Because unexploded ordnance from cluster bomblets often cause civilian casualties after conflicts end much like land mines their use has been heavily criticized by human rights groups.
The campaign group Handicap International says it has recorded 5,475 deaths and 7,246 injuries from cluster bombs in 24 countries since 1965. The vast majority of casualties were civilians, and most were in Laos, Iraq and Vietnam.
The Dutch military has two types of cluster bombs one used by its F-16 fighter jets and one used on its Apache helicopters, Defense Ministry spokesman Maurice Piek said.
The Netherlands Red Cross welcomed the move.
"We are very happy," Red Cross spokeswoman Katherine Knowles said. "Of course, in the future we would like cluster bombs to be banned in the same way that land mines are banned."
The last time the Dutch Air Force used cluster bombs was during the NATO air strikes on Kosovo in 1999, Piek said. Dutch troops taking part in the NATO mission in Afghanistan do not have any cluster weapons.
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