NEW YORK — In recent public statements, world leaders such as the pope, U.S. President Bill Clinton and World Bank President James Wolfensohn have called attention to the urgent need to end world poverty. Almost lost among their proposals to remedy the situation was any mention of the need to curb arms sales, particularly those conducted by leading industrialized nations. It is a crucial responsibility of such nations to curb sales to developing countries, not only as a way to diminish poverty, but as a critical move to achieve lasting peace.

In 1999, global arms sales shot up to $30.3 billion, the highest level since 1996. The United States strengthened its position as the biggest arms dealer, according to figures from the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

U.S. contractors in 1999 sold nearly $11.8 billion in weapons. That figure represents more than a third of the world’s total, and more than all European countries combined. Since 1990, the U.S. has exported more than $133 billion worth of weapons to states around the world, many of them led by repressive regimes.

Other leading nations are also responsible. In 1999, Russia’s arms sales amounted to $4.8 billion; Germany sold $4 billion worth; and France and Britain sold almost $900 million worth each.

Although the U.S. was the largest supplier, Russia is dramatically increasing its sales, from $2.6 billion in 1998 to its present level. At the same time, Russia has begun a major effort to increase its sales to other countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is estimated that two-thirds of all sales were to developing nations. In that regard, both the U.S., with $8.1 billion worth, and Russia, with $4.1 billion, led all countries in international arms sales.

In recent years the biggest arms buyers have been countries in the Middle East, but many developing countries — several among them with authoritarian, antidemocratic regimes — have also been important buyers. Their arms purchases have drained funds that could have been used for health and social programs aimed at the poorest sectors of their populations. Pakistan, for example, has received missile-related technical assistance from China, which has also provided such technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

The unrestrained proliferation of arms sales to some countries has not only hindered their development, but has also fueled humanitarian crises. This has particularly been the case in African countries such as Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola and Sierra Leone, among others. Weapons were not only recycled regionally, but significant new shipments continued to arrive to those countries, particularly from China and Eastern European countries that formerly belonged to the Warsaw Pact. All countries that act as suppliers have become accomplices in the human-rights violations committed with these weapons.

The World Bank has implemented important measures of debt relief aimed at the poorest, most indebted countries in the world. Although debt relief is an important way to combat poverty, it is not the only one. Education at all levels is one of the most effective measures to combat poverty and improve the health status of the poorest people.

In addition to debt relief and providing support to education programs, the World Bank should condition aid to the poorest countries on their not devoting more than a small percentage of their GNP to arms purchases, and those only for self-defense purposes. Otherwise, the World Bank will be responsible for perpetuating the same situations it blames poor countries for creating.

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