Curbing Small Arms

Arms trade is to war what the slave trade was to slavery

ONE of the most dismaying paradoxes of the cold war's end is that despite landmark treaties to reduce both nuclear and conventional arms, weapons are maiming, killing, and displacing as many people today as during the bloodiest episodes of that titanic struggle. The causes are as numerous as the conflicts, but one factor common to all is the ready availability of weapons beneath the scale of the earth-shaking missiles and bombs regulated by those treaties.

These so-called small arms range from rifles and machine guns to land mines and heavy artillery. In Bosnia and Somalia it is AK-47s and their clones that have wrought the destruction - a slow motion mass destruction, made all the more horrific for being so personal.

The dimensions of the devastation can only be hinted at in the startling statistic that more than 40 million people have lost their lives to violent conflicts in the developing world since the end of World War II.

In their justifiable preoccupation with weapons of mass destruction and invasion, policymakers have always focused on drawing down the great powers' vastly overstocked arsenals of missiles, warheads, and tanks. Until quite recently, little thought had been given to constraining the traffic in the light arms that cause much of the suffering and damage in regional conflicts today. But Bosnia, Cambodia, and Angola have reminded the world just how destructive a war can be even when the combatants are supplied with nothing larger than bullets and artillery.

In response, several important initiatives have been launched, both nationally and internationally, to track, constrain, and in some cases, eliminate from international commerce certain classes of small arms that have consistently been shown to cause undue human suffering.

A coalition of some 50 public interest groups, ranging from arms control and international development organizations to human rights lobbies and Vietnam vets, has initiated a campaign to pressure President Clinton and Congress to deny American-made weapons to undemocratic regimes. On Nov. 19, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon and Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) of Georgia introduced legislation that would prohibit arms sales to any nation that abuses human rights, denies democratic rights, attacks its neighbors or wages war against its own people, or undermines international arms control efforts.

Concurrently, international efforts are underway to pressure governments to sign on to a ``code of conduct'' constraining arms exports, following criteria similar to the US legislation. As a code, this pledge would have no binding effect other than whatever moral and political sanctions can be exercised against those who egregiously offend it.

A more ambitious long-term campaign has been undertaken by the World Order Models Project (WOMP), which together with the Lawyers' Committee for Nuclear Policy has spearheaded an effort to put into treaty form a comprehensive regime to regulate and reduce the international arms trade. ``The arms trade is to the war system as the slave trade was to slavery,'' says WOMP founder Saul Mendlovitz. And the first step in constraining the abuse is to de-legitimize it.

THAT will be no small task, since at the moment governments take arms sales to be business as usual - and a more profitable business than most. Preeminent among the profit-takers is the United States, which commands 57 percent of the world arms market, more than all other nations combined. Still more disturbing, 90 percent of US arms exports to the developing world are sold to regimes widely acknowledged to be undemocratic.

In Somalia, Panama, and Iraq, these weapons have ended up being used against the very American forces called in to repair the damage done by American-made arms. And their sometimes futile rescue efforts end up costing as much as 10 times the revenue from the arms sales.

Neither politicians nor the public has yet seriously questioned the ethics of freely selling conventional arms and artillery to nations and groups in conflict. Increasingly, however, the indiscriminate international arms traffic is being seen not just as a security concern but a fundamental human rights abuse. Human Rights Watch has launched an Arms Project, which utilizes the techniques that have proven so effective in its campaigns against abusers: publicize that abuse and then shame nations and corporations into changing their ways. Researchers are being sent into the field in more than a dozen nations, from Angola to Russia, to track the sources of supply for arms ending up in the hands of governments and groups known to be chronic human rights abusers.

This is perilous work, for the stakes are very high. Enormous sums of money, drugs, and other favors are constantly being exchanged on a scale too broad and various to be monitored, let alone regulated. Organized crime, intelligence agencies, and assorted unsavory characters populate this nether world alongside thousands of commercial arms manufacturers. Thanks to the legitimacy accorded to the ``right to bear arms,'' it is unlikely that the worldwide trade in military rifles will be constrained in any serious way in the immediate future.

Perhaps, given the daunting politics involved, it is better to approach the problem not by trying to impose a universal ban but by constraining the traffic in certain arms to certain regions of known conflict or abuse. In cases where a weapon's use is unjustifiable even in self-defense (as, some say, with land mines), then the export of that entire category of arms should be prohibited.

The profitability of the arms trade is its most alluring aspect, with greed - not need - its driving force. But however strict the system to regulate its flow, no filter will be fine enough to eliminate the toxic animosities that poison relationships and provoke hostilities between competing groups throughout the developing world. Efforts to embargo the small arms that inflict the injuries are absolutely essential and long overdue, but they will not succeed unless accompanied by mediated settlements of the underlying disputes and recognition by all parties of the right of each to live in peace with the others. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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