Apparently, no one knows what's happened to the thousands of AK-47s – and millions of rounds of ammunition – transferred from Bosnian wartime stockpiles to Iraq since 2004: Not the Bosnian government, nor NATO officials, nor the Alabama-based military contractor who transported the weapons, nor the Multi-National Command in Iraq, which was the intended recipient.
The international authorities who control arms shipments from Bosnia admit that they have no tracking system to ensure the weapons don't fall into the wrong hands, according to Amnesty International.
Like Africa in the past decade, Iraq today is awash in lightweight weapons. An estimated 7 million small arms were "lost" from Saddam Hussein's stockpiles at the beginning of the 2003 Iraq war.
Add these to the millions already circulating in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East. These weapons have a remarkably long shelf life, and many are recycled from cold-war conflicts of earlier decades. But new arrivals constantly replenish the supply, as lightweight weapons are now produced in at least 95 countries.
In 2001, the United Nations opened a process to address the burgeoning small arms problem, and member states pledged to carry out a program to address "all aspects" of the illicit trade. Later this month, those states will reconvene to consider their progress – and it hasn't been stellar.
Governments can claim some improvement in their management of weapons stockpiles, but relatively little has been done to reduce the size of the inventories or stem the flow of new provisions.
Last year, the US and a handful of other countries blocked UN efforts to develop legally binding standards for marking and tracing this class of weapons, and since 2001 no progress has been made in efforts to standardize regulations on arms brokering. Meanwhile, UN sanctions are broken with impunity.
Though a good number of arms-smuggling plots have been foiled, neither courts nor cops have been able to bring some of the most notorious arms dealers to justice. Despite an Interpol arrest warrant, for instance, arms trafficker Victor Bout continues to walk free – sometimes on the streets of Moscow.
Even when traffickers have been apprehended, some courts have found their powers limited by national laws that failed to provide adequate jurisdictional authority. In both Italy and Panama, for example, courts have dismissed cases even when the traffickers were in custody, because the weapons in question didn't actually pass through their territory (en route to Africa in one case, and to Colombia in the other). A few weeks ago, high school students in England demonstrated just how easy it is to get around regulations by setting up a fictitious company and brokering "deals" to sell Pakistani grenade launchers to Syria, Turkish guns to Mali, and South African rifles to Israel.
At this point, the major impediment to controlling the flow of small arms is the lack of a common standard to enforce. Existing international regulations are woefully inadequate, and from a global perspective, the loopholes are abundant.
While most countries have some laws about transfers, they cover different aspects of trade and are highly variable. Fewer than half of all states regulate arms in transit. Only 32 states impose stringent regulations on arms brokering. And there are few international options for prosecuting individuals who break UN arms embargoes.
Over the past five years a coalition of nongovernmental organizations has called for a treaty to establish principles and impose uniform standards on the international trade in small arms. Last April, Britain launched an appeal for legally binding global standards for acceptable arms exports, and to date some 50 states have formally declared their support for a comprehensive arms-trade treaty.
At the UN meeting this summer, states will be asked to endorse global standards for the small-arms trade. It is time for the US to join this effort. The proposed global principles are intended to prevent transfers that will fuel conflict and harm civilians. They are largely parallel to the laws and regulations that govern export of US defense items, and they are in keeping with the commitment the US has asked other governments to make regarding the shoulder-fired missiles known as MANPADS.
Effectively, a uniform and universal set of principles would extend the application of existing regional agreements that the US helped negotiate and to which it already subscribes, including the Wassenaar Arrangement.
Setting standards for acceptable transfers, of course, is only the beginning – and arguably, it is the easy part. The hard part is enforcement. But no agency can implement or enforce a standard until it exists, and efforts to restrain access to these weapons must begin somewhere. This summer's UN conference offers an important opportunity to bring this lethal trade under control, and it is an opportunity that neither the US nor other responsible suppliers can afford to pass up.
• Susan Waltz is professor of public policy and international relations at the University of Michigan.