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As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) celebrates its 50th anniversary and welcomes its three new members—the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland—one of the likely consequences of the Alliance’s enlargement eastwards remains largely unexplored: a firesale of stocks of old weapons. These arms will continue to fan the flames of violent conflict around the world, and embolden human rights abusers.

To be sure, cheap and obsolete weapons have been in high demand by combatants with dismal records on human rights. This lethal trade will only increase when more weapons are freed up by former Warsaw Pact countries downsizing their military forces and striving to upgrade their arsenals to meet NATO standards. The signs of this trend have been visible since the early 1990s when Warsaw Pact standard weapons, particularly small arms, were acquired by combatants in Africa and elsewhere, at times in violation of international or regional arms embargoes.

Yet tackling small arms proliferation and responsible disposal of excess weapons stockpiles has not been an Alliance priority. NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), which encompasses forty-four allies and partners, began debating these issues only in March 1999. This discussion proceeded in the absence of any reliable data, since figures concerning the EAPC countries’ production and inventories of small arms and light weapons are anybody’s guess. The disposal of surplus heavy weapons by NATO allies and partners is also considered by the Alliance to be outside of its purview.

NATO bears an important responsibility to prevent Alliance members and their eastern European and central Asian partners in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) from supplying weapons to forces that abuse human rights and international humanitarian law. As the Alliance defines its mission for the 21st century and prepares to undertake more peacekeeping operations, it is also in its self-interest to ensure that abusive forces do not receive weapons which may one day imperil both the civilian population under NATO’s protection and the peacekeepers themselves. In addition, as more former Warsaw Pact countries line up to join the NATO club, the Alliance is uniquely positioned to draft ground rules for allies and partners alike, providing for maximum restraint in transfers of excess weapons.

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