The International Committee of the Red Cross is calling for a new global agreement aimed at eliminating the explosive remnants of war. The ICRC is making its proposal to governments attending a United Nations conference in Geneva dealing with small conventional weapons.

ICRC officials note that nearly every major armed conflict in modern times has left behind enormous amounts of unexploded ordnance. These include artillery shells, mortars, hand grenades, landmines, cluster bombs and other explosives.

Peter Herby heads the legal division of the ICRC's Mines-Arms Unit. He says it is mainly civilians who lose their lives or limbs by coming into contact with these devices. Mr. Herby says the suffering is particularly acute when these weapons are used in areas such as in Afghanistan, where the health infrastructure has been destroyed or is inadequate. "Indeed the suffering, the distances people have to travel to receive assistance are huge in many cases, and many people do not survive under such conditions," he explained. "What is particularly striking is the fact that just weeks of war can now lead to years and years of clearance efforts which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and many hundreds or thousands of lives."

Case studies show that since 1973, about 11,00 0people in Laos have been killed or injured by a wide variety of explosive ordnance. About half of them have been killed by cluster bombs. Another study describes the long-lasting effects of World War II. It notes that armed forces in Poland cleared about 88 million unexploded devices between 1945 and 1981.

The Red Cross cites other examples of the destructive nature of explosive remnants left behind from wars in Kosovo, on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border and most recently in Afghanistan. Mr. Herby says that after the war is over, people are left to fend for themselves. "At the moment, in reality, no one is responsible," he said. "In reality, it is just too bad what happens, and civilian populations are left to get on with their lives as best they can, to clear their fields as best they can, and even if under law perhaps the national government is responsible, often they too are utterly incapable of dealing with the problem."

The ICRC proposal calls for warring parties to provide technical information needed for clearance immediately after hostilities end. The agency also is proposing a ban on the use of cluster bombs on military targets located near civilian areas.