When Saddam Hussein became a household name, chemical and biological weapons gained similar notoriety. So for the past eight years, the United Nations has been trying to eliminate Iraq's modern arsenal. Yet as much as 90 percent of the world's war victims die from old-fashioned instruments: small and light arms such as rifles, machine guns, and pistols.
Arguing that the presence of these weapons can act as a cause of conflicts, not just a symptom, human rights activists want controls on the proliferation of these conventional weapons to get the same international attention as efforts to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.
In the past year, governments have entered into regional agreements written in Europe, Western Africa, and the Americas. While codes on the $3 billion annual trade in legal small and light arms are being debated, inventive programs have been instituted to tackle the problem of existing arsenals in countries struggling to put recent violent upheavals behind them.
For example, arms experts and government officials in Mali are contemplating a so-called weapons-for-development program to disarm civilians. Such a pilot project just commenced in Albania's Gramsh district, where the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) hopes to collect some 10,000 weapons in exchange for roads, telephone lines, or other infrastructure projects.
In other parts of the world, trade-in programs have been instituted. In those cases, food or money is given in exchange for the arms. But buy-back policies can exacerbate problems by creating a secondary market for arms. In El Salvador, foreign companies' food-voucher offers have resulted in few guns being collected. Popular distrust of the police encourage civilians to hang on to their stock.
"If the police cannot guarantee a sufficient level of security, then you are not going to get people to turn in their weapons," says retired General Henny van der Graaf, an adviser to the UN on disarmament affairs. "So the program in Albania includes strengthening the police."
Mr. van der Graaf, who conducted the feasibility study in Albania for UNDP, concedes that any weapons exchange program would work only in stable regions. In northern Albania, people may not want to turn in their arms since they can earn a lot by selling them across the border to Kosovo.
Thus, no matter how successful the Gramsh pilot project may become, van der Graaf does not recommend that the project be implemented nationwide to collect an estimated 600,000 weapons stolen from government depots in 1997.
It can, however, be replicated in Mali, he insists. Just three years ago, 3,000 weapons were collected from former rebels and burned in a public ceremony.
As Mali contemplates ways to cut the existing arsenal within its borders, other governments wrestle with the flow of arms to unstable countries. The European Union hammered out a code of conduct last year, stipulating that conventional arms should not be sold to countries that abuse human rights or support terrorism.
And 16 west African nations agreed last November to suspend the import and export of conventional weapons to each other.
Meanwhile, as several US cities sue gunmakers for alleged inadequate oversight on the illegal use of their products, Washington has shown an increasing willingness to tackle the flow of arms across US borders.
It has signed an Organization of American States convention that delineates how the 35 member countries should combat the illegal trade in arms. "It's easy to buy guns in the US," says Michael Klare, the director of the Five College Program in Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. "In fact, the US is the main supplier to criminals in Latin America."
But the problem is not restricted to illicit trafficking, contend disarmament experts.
"The US is still part of the problem because it still sends arms to countries that ... have not demonstrated the ability to properly use these weapons," says Edward Laurence of the Monterey Institute for International Studies in Monterey, Calif.
In 1996, the departments of State and Defense licensed the export of light weapons worth almost $500 million. The problem is that US embassies do not adequately monitor whether these arms are used for their intended defense purpose, rather than for repressive measures.
Nongovernmental organizations, emboldened by the success of the anti-land-mines treaty, hope that they can push governments even further. But in many ways, the path toward curbing the use of conventional weapons will be more difficult to navigate.
"It's totally different from the land-mines campaign," says Jeffrey Boutwell, the director of international security studies at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass. "You're talking about [land mines], one type of weapon that's ... not militarily useful."
Guns are not only more prevalent than land mines, but also a staple of any defense arsenal. "Every country has the right to import these weapons for their national security. Every country has a right to defend itself. And repressed people have the right to get weapons to defend themselves," says Mr. Klare. "The sovereignty issue is really the crux of the small and light arms problem."
Even if these legal concerns could be addressed, there remains the even greater difficulty of enforcing arms-control measures. Guns, grenades, and rocket launchers can be easily concealed, allowing traffickers to thumb their nose at embargoes, as is the case in Kosovo and Angola.
And these weapons are easy to obtain. The ever-popular AK-47, for instance, is no longer produced just in Russia. Knock-offs can be found in China and Eastern European countries.
And once they are in the wrong hands, they can remain there indefinitely as these conventional weapons do not require much maintenance. Arms experts believe that many of the 400,000 AK-47s that the CIA supplied to the rebel mujahideen in Afghanistan are still in circulation.
In Liberia, Jeffrey Boutwell says, the tenuous cease-fire was suddenly disrupted with the arrival of weapons, which emboldened people to revive the conflict.
"If they're bent on conflict, they will use anything they can find. But certainly the likelihood of conflict and their devastating effects would have been minimized if the weapons had not arrived," he contends.