Arms Around the World

"Please check your guns at the door," reads the sign outside many a restaurant in the Philippines. Handguns are such a common personal item in that Asian nation that they're treated like umbrellas.

Worldwide, small arms are proliferating as the weapons of choice in small conflicts, creating a $1 billion industry, corrupting governments, fanning civil wars, and protecting the drug trade (see story, page 1.)

Can anything be done to curb this proliferation? Many countries regulate legal exports of small arms and light weapons. A few countries, like Bulgaria, are trying to clean up their image by getting out of the business of manufacturing such weapons as AK-47s and mortars. And international conventions have laid down some rules on the legal side of the trade.

But 40 to 60 percent of small arms are sold on the black market, and it's that illegal trade that many countries hope to control by designing new rules during a United Nations conference on the topic starting today.

Conference leaders are pessimistic that this lucrative, secretive, and pernicious trade can be stopped easily. They estimate that a half billion small arms are already in circulation.

Still, the meeting will help broaden the global consensus for action, especially if some of the following proposals are generally accepted:

* Set up an international system to mark and trace light weapons to keep legal ones from entering illicit trade.

* Tighten up export controls, with better checking of weapon sales at borders.

* License international purchasers of small arms.

* Better regulate the legal manufacture of weapons.

* Impose stronger punishment for those who sell arms illegally.

* Strive for better enforcement of weapon embargoes against nations engaged in a conflict.

Regional efforts, such as in Africa and the Americas, have been made in recent years to control the small-arms trade. Now the time is ripe globally to clean up this mess left over from the cold war when the big powers fed conflicts with arms.

Power, these days, comes less and less out of the barrel of a gun.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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