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Controlling Deadly Trade

The world is fretting, rightly, over the nuclear arms race in South Asia. But it should direct some of that concern toward another kind of arms proliferation that's ongoing, largely out of control, and immediately deadly: the worldwide flow of military small arms.

By some estimates, at least $10 billion in automatic rifles, machine guns, mortars, and other light arms is sold yearly. That sounds small compared to the total cost of warplanes, ships, tanks, and missiles. But it represents whole armies' worth of AK-47s and other surplus weaponry, ample to cause untold mayhem. One arms-trade expert says the genocide in Rwanda was carried out with less than $25 million in imported arms.

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Some of the trade is illegal, carried on by smugglers; some is government-to-government, above board. But a lot is in a gray area where private arms dealers get poorly scrutinized licenses to ship millions of dollars in arms. The destinations, and final buyers, are typically shrouded in mystery.

Big national players in the arms trade span the globe - China, Russia, a number of Eastern European countries, Belgium, Israel, Singapore, South Africa, and, of course, the US. Almost any country with an established arms industry.

There are some nascent efforts to curb the trade. The Organization of American States, for example, has a laudable hemispheric agreement designed to stem the black market in weapons, which feeds guns to drug cartels, urban gangs, and guerrillas. This pact aims to implement uniform procedures among countries in the Americas - such as requiring government approval for the buyers of arms, and registering guns to help verify where they end up.

Wider international efforts to restrict the commerce in small arms are beginning to take shape. Private groups and individual scholars advocate tighter controls and try to compile statistics. The latter is a tough assignment, since neither individual countries nor the UN keep good records on the light-arms trade. So far, no movement has coalesced to rival, for example, the successful multinational campaign to ban anti-personnel land mines.

Supplier countries must exercise leadership here. The Clinton administration is publicly committed to cracking down on arms smuggling. But only a tiny percentage of arms shipments concluded by private dealers get closely checked by the US government.

Also begging closer scrutiny are the human rights records of regimes that get government-to-government shipments.

The US, for example, has shipped arms to countries such as Colombia, Turkey, and Indonesia, whose militaries have often been charged with abuses.

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Legislation to establish a code of conduct for arms transfers, including attention to patterns of abuse, has been before Congress for the past two years. It must be passed.

A less violent world is the goal, and curbing the trade in light arms is one obvious place to start.

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