Why We Must Curb Arms Deals
Published on Wednesday, August 21, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Why We Must Curb Arms Deals
by Paul Knox

In a time of grim realism in world affairs, it might seem odd to talk about slowing any kind of arms race.

The world is bracing for the fallout from a U.S. assault on Iraq. The Bush administration is withdrawing from arms-control agreements. It's pushing ahead with the development of space-based weapons systems and a new generation of nuclear devices. To many, disarmament is a dirty word when the world is under attack.

But the case for it is as strong as ever, particularly where proliferation of small arms and light weapons is concerned. Potential victims of mercenary armies, garden-variety terrorists, armed gangs and organized criminals around the world have as strong a claim to protection as those in Osama bin Laden's sights. They have a right to demand that weapons manufacturers and governments do everything possible to ensure that arms are not knowingly delivered to those with a track record of atrocities, or in situations where they are bound to pour fuel on conflicts already raging.

As I wrote on Friday, the global weapons trade experienced a slowdown last year. It was driven largely by economic conditions and isn't likely to endure. Something like half a billion light weapons -- guns, grenade launchers and the like -- are believed to be in circulation. Despite their low cost, they are responsible for the vast majority of war deaths among civilians.

These are the tools of rival armies in places such as Chechnya, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and of dictators elsewhere in Africa and Central Asia.

There are few signs of a crise de conscience among their suppliers, and a post-Sept. 11 spike in arms transfers is likely. "From my perspective, the war on terrorism is an excuse to sell arms and get a U.S. foothold in new markets," says Tamar Gabelnick, director of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Efforts to promote curbs on arms deals suffered a setback last year at the first United Nations conference on small arms and light weapons. The meeting endorsed an action plan to combat illicit armaments traffic. But it was severely weakened after U.S. representatives stood firm against the notion of curbs on civilians' right to bear arms and supplying weapons to friendly rebel armies. Nevertheless, another conference is to be held in 2006.

Another proposal comes from a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners led by Oscar Arias, the dour but dogged former president of Costa Rica. It's a global treaty that would prohibit the transfer of weapons where there is a "reasonable risk" that they would be used to commit atrocities, aggression or violations of the law of war.

This initiative, the Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers, draws on the experience of the European Union, which has some of the world's biggest weapons producers -- and, since 1998, a much-criticized code of conduct for arms deals. Unlike the non-binding EU code, it would prohibit certain types of transactions. Ultimately, it could lead to common standards for arms transfers among countries that now have widely varying systems for scrutinizing and approving military exports.

Such a treaty, if effective, would remove a principal argument from those who argue against arms-trade restrictions: If we don't do it, someone else will. It would help lift the mantle of secrecy off the world of arms dealing, as it is slowly being raised from mining, oil and other industries with a global reach.

The idea deserves a fair hearing, at the very least.

© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc