"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Libya Arms Embargo Precedes Air Strikes
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Xiaodon Liang

Members of a UN-authorized coalition began air strikes March 19 against military assets controlled by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, completing an abrupt reversal in relations that until as recently as three months ago involved significant arms sales. With an arms embargo mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1970 in place since Feb. 26, key coalition members such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States are now committed to preventing the further influx of weapons to Gaddafi’s forces.

A second Security Council resolution concerning Libya, Resolution 1973 of March 17, authorizes member states “to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians.” Officials from members of the coalition have expressed a range of views on whether the new resolution permits arming of the rebels.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have said that arming the rebels is now permitted but that there has not been a decision to take that step. President Barack Obama said March 29, “I’m not ruling it out. But I’m also not ruling it in.”

The text of the new resolution says the measures to protect civilians are to be taken “notwithstanding paragraph 9” of the February resolution. That paragraph contains the Security Council’s instructions for an arms embargo. The State Department had said it interpreted the first resolution as blocking arms transfers to all parties, a stance that drew criticism from U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

The embargo is the first action by the United Nations to block arms transfers to Middle Eastern states affected by a surge of unrest beginning in January. Some of those states have been the subject of unilateral or EU-organized arms embargoes, but the Security Council has not moved to expand any of these measures to a global scale.

The embargo will affect European and Russian arms suppliers most heavily. According to annual national and EU reports, the EU countries issuing the largest number of licenses for arms exports to Libya were, in order, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Between 2005 and 2009, these states approved export licenses worth about 700 million euros (approximately $1 billion). Licenses were approved for the sale of small arms, ammunition including rubber bullets, tear gas, helicopters, aircraft, ground vehicles, battlefield radar, and military software. The issuance of licenses does not always result in deliveries.

Sergey V. Chemezov, the director of Rostekhnologii, a Russian state-owned arms company, has been quoted in the media as valuing potential Russian losses from the embargo at $4 billion.

In 2007 the United States removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Washington’s resultant loosening of an arms embargo allowed for the sale of nonlethal items to Libya, resulting in limited but increasing sales authorizations that totaled $15.8 million in 2009.

Measures to halt arms transfers to other Middle Eastern states have been uneven. France and the United Kingdom have suspended licenses for arms exports to Bahrain. The United States has launched an investigation to determine whether specific violations of a provision of U.S. law known as the Leahy amendment have occurred. That provision, which was introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), prohibits U.S. funding of units of a security force that have committed “gross violations of human rights.”

In a March 10 letter to Leahy, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Miguel E. Rodriguez said the Obama administration is reassessing its procedures for reviewing arms sales to states undergoing periods of unrest, specifically including Bahrain.

As the security situation in Yemen has deteriorated, concerns have arisen about possible attacks on protesters by specialized units trained with foreign assistance. At a March 12 press briefing in Sana’a, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein responded to a question on that point by saying, “We have not seen evidence that the units that we work with are being used for crowd control. We don’t have any evidence, we maintain our relationships with them, and we haven’t seen them on the street.”