Wrong customers for US police weapons

Police ''cattle prods'' are not your everyday commodity. These are crowd control devices that resemble nightsticks or batons and that give out a nonlethal but high-voltage electric shock. A number of US police agencies now have them. Unfortunately, they have also been eagerly sought by police and military agencies in nations with questionable human rights records.

The United States should traffic in such sensitive crime-control devices only under the most stringent limitations, if at all. For that reason, there seems little justification for the export licenses for such equipment granted by the US Commerce Department earlier this year to South Korea and South Africa. As has now come out in bits and pieces of evidence over the past several weeks, the order to South Korea was subsequently cancelled, but only following criticism from State Department officials and a number of congressmen. Unfortunately, a shipment of unidentified ''crime control devices'' was licensed and subsequently shipped to South Africa.

Such a shipment is inexcusable. The Commerce Department concedes that the order should never have been approved - and, in fact, only took place through what it calls an administrative error when the request failed to reach the State Department for a review by that office. An internal investigation is now in progress by Commerce. Such an enquiry should be concluded as quickly as possible and made public.

According to Commerce Department officials, no new licenses for crime-control devices have been issued to overseas nations since those earlier incidents. At the same time, department officials have said that they will be careful to follow to the letter an agreement worked out between State and Commerce over review procedures. That means that such export licenses will not be granted without the prior consultation and approval of the State Department.

Commerce should bend every effort to honor the agreement with State. Americans, of course, are more than eager to sell their products abroad. But some items that say ''made in America'' are best left on the docks, particularly when they could be adversely used against the people of another nation.

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