GENEVA, Nov 9 (Reuters) - A U.S.-backed proposal to regulate cluster bombs would water down an existing international ban on their use, leaving civilians in conflict zones exposed for years to come, the head of the ICRC has told Reuters.
"It's a step backwards, it is a much lower standard," Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said in an interview in his Geneva office.
Cluster bombs, dropped by air or fired by artillery, scatter hundreds of bomblets across a wide area and can kill and maim civilians long after conflicts end.
The Oslo Convention of 2008 -- negotiated outside the United Nations framework by a group of countries keen to get quick action on the weapons -- banned their use, production and transfer and laid down timetables for stockpile destruction.
But the United States, China and Russia, all major producers, as well as Pakistan and India, shunned that agreement, saying it would impinge on their capacity to defend themselves against land attack.
Washington has endorsed a weaker U.N. draft pact -- in the form of a protocol to the 1980 "Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons" or CCW, that will be discussed from Nov. 14-25 in Geneva by envoys from 114 countries.
"When you look at this (draft) compared to the Oslo Convention, in a way it is going back on standards already set on the level of international humanitarian law," Kellenberger said.
The protocol would ban the use and transfer of cluster munitions produced before 1980 and those lacking any safety mechanism to make them self-destruct.
For devices manufactured since 1980 with one safety mechanism, it would allow their use for a further 12 years after it enters into force. The ratification process itself typically takes several years.
"The draft at its present stage means practically that you can use until 2026 all cluster munitions except the ones produced before 1980," Kellenberger said.
"The ICRC is under a moral obligation to draw attention to the problems when you do adopt certain texts. Because it is also one of our tasks to fight for the best possible standards to protect civilians."
Although the pact is less ambitious than the Oslo Convention, backers say it would set the five key powers outside the Oslo accord on the right path. Critics led by Norway say it would dilute progress and do more harm than good.
"I have expressed the ICRC's concerns at high levels," said Kellenberger, whose independent humanitarian agency is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions embodying the rules of war.
Cluster bombs have been used since World War Two, including in wars in Iraq and Kosovo. But Israel's deadly deployment in south Lebanon in 2006 sparked outrage and led to the clinching of the Oslo treaty, now signed by 111 countries.
One recent convert to Oslo was the Royal Bank of Scotland which, under activist pressure, said it would stop doing business with clients "whose activities could be considered to be outside the spirit of the convention".
The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch accused forces of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi of using them against rebels in the city of Misrata during this year's successful uprising to overthrow him.
The ICRC was not opposed to the Geneva negotiations, but would like the outcome to be complementary to the Oslo pact, said Kellenberger, a former Swiss diplomat who is stepping down next June 30 after 12 years at the ICRC helm.
To bring hold-out military powers on board, a starting point could be a ban on cluster munitions use in densely-populated areas, he suggested.
"It may be too much for a state to ratify the Oslo Convention. But it may not be too much for a state to adopt national legislation that goes much further than this draft." (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by Robert Evans and Rosalind Russell)