Slowing the Flow of Arms

With intensifying conflict in Congo, ongoing civil war in Sudan, and simmering strife between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the last thing Africa needs is fresh shipments of arms. Yet that's what it will soon get from Russia and Bulgaria.

Those two Eastern European countries are eager for the millions of dollars they'll get from Ethiopia for their helicopters, tanks, and other gear. They share that profit motive with arms exporters in the West - in fact, their economic woes intensify the urge to sell.

Ironically, they also share membership in a group called the Wassenaar regime - named after the Dutch city where the group formed in 1995. Its purpose is to monitor, and supposedly restrain, commerce in weaponry and other military technology.

The Wassenaar countries just concluded a conference in Vienna at which they pledged "maximum restraint" before selling arms to regions threatened by war. The sales to Ethiopia suggest how far this commitment is from meaningful realization.

Still, Wassenaar exists, and it may yet find the teeth to actually curb the official - or legal - trade in tools of war. Meanwhile, efforts to shrink the other side of the global arms trade - sales of guns and explosives through private, often illegal channels - are getting some teeth.

The Organization of American States has adopted a convention to criminalize the private trade in weapons. Requirements for uniform inspections, identification of guns, and law enforcement coordination throughout the Americas should help reduce smuggling. The United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice last April called for a treaty to combat the illicit flow of firearms around the globe. Nongovernmental organizations involved in disarmament issues have met in Belgium and Canada this year. They hope to build an "International Network on Small Arms."

These are all starts at solving a problem that visits pain and terror on millions of people. They will become more than starts when major arms producers, like the US and other Western powers, recognize that gains in world peace and stability far outweigh lost revenue from arms sales. Then they'll be in a morally sound position to bring the Eastern Europeans and other arms sellers around as well.

The successes of the campaign to turn world opinion, and much of the world's political leadership, against the production and sale of land mines shows what can be accomplished.

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