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During the Cold War, arms-control efforts focused on weapons of mass destruction. Diplomats struggled to find ways to limit biological, chemical and nuclear arsenals. They met with varying degrees of success, and they are laboring still to protect humanity from their destructive power. In recent years, a new threat has become evident: that posed by small arms and light weapons. Capping the trade in such weapons will be no less frustrating than the effort to limit the spread of the others, but governments and arms-control advocates must try.

This category of weapons poses entirely new challenges for arms control. Small arms are easy to make, easy to use and easy to transport or smuggle. As a result they are cheap and widely available. Experts estimate there are more than 500 million small arms and light weapons circulating worldwide. They may be designated as “small” or “light,” but they are just as deadly as other weapons. In the last decade, 3 million people have been killed in conflicts that used small arms alone. As many as 90 percent of all deaths in contemporary wars are caused by light weapons. They have become “the primary tools of violence” in the world.

The proliferation of such weapons has changed the face of war. The horrific rise in the number of child soldiers is partially attributable to the growing availability of small arms. Older, larger weapons could not be handled by most children under the age of 16; the new ones can. Although small arms are just as deadly as large weapons, we have not yet seen the real effects of the growing use of this class of weapons.

While many children play at being soldiers, in Africa, for example, a generation of youngsters that has witnessed or even participated in killing without compunction is growing up. What will become of countries whose children have lived in such an atmosphere? Many of the child soldiers have never been properly socialized; they only know the power that grows from the barrel of a gun.

Nor is this a problem for “other countries.” Small arms are easily transported. Experts have traced the path of the 2 million small arms that the U.S. military left in Vietnam when it withdrew in 1975. Those weapons went from Vietnam to Cuba to rebels fighting the Salvadoran government. (There they were used against U.S.-supported forces.) When the militaries fighting there signed a peace agreement, many of the weapons ended up on the black market where they were sold to guerrillas in Peru or to drug cartels. Authorities have traced guns used in Belgian bank robberies back to the Yugoslav war. Even Japan is threatened by a rise in the number of small weapons being smuggled into the country.

Governments have not ignored the dangers posed by these weapons. There have been several regional initiatives to limit further dispersal. Codes of conduct for arms transfers have been proposed in the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United States, the European Union, Latin America and Southern Africa. But the ease with which such weapons can be manufactured and then transported anywhere in the world means that only a global solution will work. A U.N. panel of experts this summer proposed the establishment of an international agreement to control the use of small arms.

Reaching an agreement could prove difficult. Getting the U.S. to sign on will be especially problematic, given the power of its gun lobby and the second amendment to its constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms. That is no reason to back off, however. An international treaty is the only workable option. Creating one would also help establish a norm that supports gun-control advocates in the U.S. and forces the U.S. — like any other nation — to consider its behavior within the context of international law.

Devising an effective response will require diplomatic creativity. Options to be explored include the marking and registration of weapons, setting production limits on gun manufacture or focusing on the production of ammunition. Cooperation and coordination among law-enforcement agencies is a necessary component of any plan to control these weapons. Peacekeepers and peace enforcers should be required not only to confiscate weapons from combatants, but also to see that they are then destroyed. Many people are sure to call this agenda unworkable and impractical. Thinking that will only make it so. The success in establishing the international criminal court and winning support for the campaign to ban land mines proves that the improbable is possible. An international commitment to control the spread of small arms is a worthy goal for the next millennium.

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