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
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
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