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Former IAEA Director-General
Jeff Abramson

Process Changes Offered as Arms Sales Rise

November 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Democratic U.S. lawmakers are considering new measures to increase congressional oversight of U.S. arms exports, notifications of which are reaching record highs in 2020. So far this year, the State Department has formally sent to Congress more than $100 billion in potential arms sales via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program to 30 countries plus Taiwan. This total is easily the highest of the Trump administration, and the second highest over more than the past two decades.

A U.S. F-35 aircraft takes off in Nevada in May. A sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates is the most controversial of record high levels of potential U.S. weapons exports.  (Photo: Bryan Guthrie/U.S. Air Force)Many additional billions in arms sales also appear to be close to formal notification, which starts a clock during which both chambers of Congress can pass resolutions of disapproval to bar sales agreements. Last year, the Trump administration bypassed the notification clock, leading to multiple efforts from lawmakers to reassert congressional authority into the process, which the president ultimately vetoed. The legislators were particularly concerned over planned weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The most controversial of the as-yet-unofficial deals again involves Abu Dhabi, consisting of an F-35 sale worth billions of dollars. On Oct. 20, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would require presidential certifications that Israel’s qualitative military edge would not be threatened before F-35s could be sold to other countries in the Middle East. Earlier in the month, Menendez and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent 16 questions to the administration asking about national security concerns regarding such sales.

Some analysts have speculated that the proposed sale is a benefit to the UAE for its signature of the Abraham Accords in September to normalize relations with Israel. Despite official denials of such a link, the senators wrote that “the administration’s attempt to move at breakneck speed so close to this announcement would give the appearance that it was.” Shortly after the accords were announced, rumors also circulated of many additional sales for countries in the Middle East, with media speculating on new deals for Israel and Qatar.

Fighter aircraft sales account for the greatest share of official export notifications this year, with the long-anticipated potential sale of more than 100 F-35s to Japan, valued at more than $23 billion, the single-highest proposed transfer. Sales of advanced aircraft to Finland and Switzerland added another roughly $40 billion to the 2020 FMS annual total. Those notifications, made as part of international competitive bids, included two separate packages for each country, only one of which will be accepted, if at all, by Helsinki and Bern.

In April, separate packages valued at $1.5 billion and $450 million were presented to Congress as part of a competition to provide attack helicopters to the Philippines. On June 10, 19 members of Congress, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing human rights concerns about arms sales to the Philippines and other countries, including Egypt, Hungary, India, and the UAE. (See ACT, June 2020.)

In February, Omar introduced what is one of a growing number of legislative proposals that would change how the United States factors human rights into arms trade decisions. Her bill titled “Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act” would establish human rights and international humanitarian law-based triggers, the violation of which lead to prohibitions on arms sales.

In September, Menendez with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced a bill titled “Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports (SAFEGUARD) Act of 2020,” which would elevate human rights considerations in arms trade. It would require that certain weapons be sold under the FMS program, rather than the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) program that generally has less public transparency and accounts for a growing share of U.S. arms sales. It would also remove minimum dollar-value thresholds on congressional notifications to certain countries.



Many of these proposed changes would address issues recently raised by the State Department Office of Inspector General. In an August report examining last year’s emergency arms sales, the office found many of the weapons were being sold via the DCS program and that more than $11.2 billion in approved transfers between January 2017 and late 2019 were below the threshold for congressional notification. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Also in September, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a bill titled “Values in Arms Export Act of 2020,” which would make human rights and international humanitarian law requirements more explicit in arms agreements, create prohibitions based on violations and list Saudi Arabia and the UAE as countries of concerns, establish an independent oversight board, and make it easier for Congress to raise resolutions of disapproval.

Another approach, thus far primarily discussed publicly among the policy community, is to “flip the script” so that Congress must proactively approve select arms sales. The concept, based in part on legislation proposed in 1986 by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), would mark a major shift because Congress would no longer need to have a veto-proof majority to block a sale.


Record-high U.S. arms export plans are spurring Democrats to boost congressional oversight.

ATT Takes On Arms Diversion

September 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Members of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) focused on preventing the diversion of conventional weapons to unauthorized uses and users as they conducted the treaty's sixth annual conference Aug. 17–21. While primarily making procedural decisions and continuing to avoid discussion of controversial arms transfers, conference participants formalized a mechanism for sharing confidential information that drew criticism from civil society for its potential to exclude stakeholders.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross speaks in China in 2018. In a statement to the Arms Trade Treaty's sixth annual conference in August, Maurer questioned the arms trade practices of many states. (Photo: Thomas Peter/pool/Getty Images)Concern over the coronavirus pandemic spurred conference organizers to conduct the meeting via written statements only, rather than using in-person or virtual platforms that allowed for real-time dialogue.

Argentina, which held the presidency of the conference, chose information sharing and transparency for preventing diversion as a special theme. To further that effort, conference president Federico Villegas presented a working paper with eight recommendations. The first was to continue work to establish a forum for states to discuss diversion cases. States-parties adopted the idea, deciding to establish the Diversion Information Exchange Forum (DIEF), with a first formal meeting to be organized by the next ATT president, and to review its usefulness during the eighth conference of states-parties.

The DIEF’s terms of reference, however, were only available to states-parties and signatories, and the mechanisms for others to participate were not fully clear. Numerous civil society leaders and groups expressed concern about the possible exclusion of civil society and other stakeholders from the process.

Those concerns were also echoed in findings from the ATT Monitor, the civil society-led initiative for monitoring treaty implementation led by the Control Arms campaign. That research found an increasing number of annual reports were being kept confidential, with 11 percent of reports in 2018 marked that way, as opposed to just 2 percent in 2015. The report also expressed concern about declines in on-time reporting, recognizing that the pandemic may have posed challenges for some states. It found that only 37 percent of states-parties met this year’s May 31 deadline for submitting reports on last year’s arms transfers, down from nearly 50 percent a year earlier.

As at past conferences, states-parties also generally avoided discussing controversial arms transfer decisions, such as those allowing arms to go to countries engaged in the civil war in Yemen or to Libya where a UN arms embargo was in place. In his written statement, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, drew attention to the need for change in state practices. “I remain gravely concerned by the apparent disparity between the treaty’s obligation to ensure respect for [international humanitarian law] in arms transfer decisions and the arms transfer practices of too many states. This calls into question the treaty’s credibility and effectiveness,” he said.

Despite the challenges of holding a meeting during the pandemic, Villegas cited many accomplishments in a video address closing the conference. He also noted that treaty membership has increased to 110 states-parties, with six countries—Afghanistan, China, the Maldives, Namibia, Niue, and Sao Tome and Principe—joining since the 2019 conference. He saw the addition of these countries, China in particular, as indications of the value of the treaty and as support for multilateralism.

China’s accession had been anticipated, making it the third of the top five global exporters of major conventional weapons to join the treaty, along with France and Germany, who were among the original 2013 signers and ratified the treaty in 2014. Neither the United States nor Russia, the world’s largest arms exporters, are states-parties.

China rebutted international concerns about its arms trade practices, declaring in its statement to the meeting that it “has always taken a prudent and responsible approach and exercised strict control on its arms export[s].” China also took the opportunity to criticize the United States, calling it “some country” that “by abusing arms trade as a political tool, flagrantly interferes in the internal affairs of other countries and pursues hegemony and bullying policy, which undermines international and regional peace and stability.” It also appeared to take a jab at U.S. President Donald Trump’s frequent blaming of China for the pandemic, saying that geopolitical tensions and other ills are “driven by the political ‘virus’ from some country.”

The United States, which in 2019 did not attend the annual conference and moved away from the treaty by stating it had no legal obligations arising from its 2013 signature, participated in the conference and other meetings this year. (See ACT, May 2019.) Although not issuing a formal statement at the conference, a State Department official told Arms Control Today on Aug. 20 that Washington was participating in 2020 meetings as an “observer in order to protect and promote U.S. interests in the international arms trade.” The official also said, “[W]e look forward to China complying with the obligations it has assumed by becoming a state-party and becoming a responsible participant in the international arms trade.”


The Arms Trade Treaty’s annual conference established a controversial closed forum to address the diversion of arms to unauthorized uses and users.

Inspector General Reviews U.S. Arms Sales

September 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Congressional oversight of U.S. arms sales to the Middle East drew a spotlight in August when a new State Department Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report was released examining the propriety of emergencies the Trump administration declared in 2019 to speed certain exports. At the same time, administration officials continued to press for new weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Models of U.S.-supplied Saudi Royal Air Force fighter jets are displayed at the 2017 Dubai Airshow. Last year, the Trump administration declared an emergency to forestall congressional review of certain U.S. arms sales to the Middle East. (Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)Claiming heightened threats from Iran and frustrated by holds put on arms sales, the Trump administration declared an emergency in May 2019 allowing it to bypass a review period that would customarily have followed formal notifications for 22 arms transfer cases to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, valued at approximately $8.1 billion. Among these were at least $3.8 billion in precision-guided munitions, which were central to extremely rare Congressional joint resolutions of disapproval passed in July 2019, that were then vetoed by President Donald Trump. (See ACT, September 2019.) It was during this period that a request was made for the OIG to investigate whether the emergency declaration was proper.

The OIG investigation, conducted from October to December 2019, but only released in August, did find that the State Department had followed the law. It also noted that a fraction of the weapons included in the May 2019 emergency declaration had been fully delivered by late 2019.

The May 2020 firing of Inspector General Steve Linick recently raised concerns that his dismissal might be related to the investigation. (See ACT, June 2020.)

The report did not assess whether an emergency existed in 2019, but members of Congress continued to press that question. Shortly after the report was released, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) sent a letter to R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, expressing concern that his 2019 testimony about there being an emergency was untrue given the report's timeline of how that declaration
was made.

In an Aug. 17 response letter, Cooper defended the State Department and his prior testimony, and cited recent announcements of the UAE and Israel moving to establish normalized relations as further indication of the wisdom of the sales. He also asked Congress to conclude its informal review of potential sales to the UAE of small arms and chain guns, and of Paveway IV guided munitions and other weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, noting that the customary informal review period deadline had ended between two and eight months ago. Separately, Trump said on Aug. 19 that sales of F-35 aircraft to the UAE were under review.

In recent months, media reports have indicated that the administration has been planning to do away with the informal review process, particularly due to holds placed on weapons to Saudi Arabia. Cooper's letter, however, appeared to indicate that on the weapons referenced the administration would wait for the informal process to conclude before making a formal notification. The OIG report noted that 15 of the 22 cases that were part of the emergency declaration in 2019 had been subject to an informal hold, six for more than a year.

The OIG report also found that the department approved transfers of weapons below the threshold for congressional notification, with an estimated $11.2 billion in approvals to Saudi Arabia and the UAE between January 2017 and late 2019. It also concluded “that the department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties” as related to the precision guided munitions.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, transfers of major defense equipment valued at $14 million or more, and non-major defense equipment at $50 million or more, to countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE must be formally notified to Congress, which starts a 30-day review period during which Congress could block the administration from agreeing to the transfer. By custom but not by law, that formal process is preceded by a 40-day informal notification during which members of Congress have often put a “hold” on sales.

The Trump administration continues to push Middle East arms sales after an internal U.S. State Department report was released.

Civil Society Letter on Humanitarian Disarmament Advocates Path Ahead

Today, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions worldwide, has laid bare the terrible human cost of misaligned security policies. It underscores that global challenges, like the threat of nuclear war and the global trade in conventional arms, require global solutions. In response, a network of more than 250 organizations, have issued an open letter with advice built from decades of success using the humanitarian disarmament (HD) approach. That approach, which takes human security, rather than state security, as the organizing principle has led...

U.S. Arms Deals Continue During Pandemic

June 2020
By Jeff Abramson

As the Trump administration designated the defense industry as essential, notifications of potential new international arms sales have continued during the coronavirus pandemic. In May, however, the firing of the State Department's inspector general and push for new arms sales raised controversy.

The most high-profile concerns, however, focus on a deal that has not yet been formally notified to Congress for new weapons for Saudi Arabia. In a May 27 CNN commentary, ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he had not received sufficient answers as to why the deal, details of which were not yet public, was needed and that, “Until we have an answer, Congress must reject this new multi-million dollar sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.” The following day, The New York Times reported that the deal valued at $478 million would include 7,500 precision-guided missiles and licenses to allow Raytheon to expand manufacturing capacity in Saudi Arabia.

Menendez linked his concerns to a congressional effort to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2019, which was given greater attention when President Donald Trump fired the State Department’s inspector general on May 15. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Trump on May 18, saying, “It is alarming to see news reports that your action may have been in response to Inspector General [Steve] Linick nearing completion of an investigation into the approval of billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”

After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that weapons sales to the countries needed to proceed on an emergency basis in May 2019, bypassing the 30-day notification period, both chambers passed resolutions of disapproval that the president vetoed last July. (See ACT, September 2019.) Members of Congress had asked for the inspector general to start an investigation into the arms sales.

Overall, between March 30 and May 28, Congress was notified of potential foreign military sales of approximately $7.5 billion. If annualized, that pace of $45 billion for sales notifications would be lower than the nearly $70 billion in sales that were notified in 2019.

The recent notifications included two possible attack helicopters sales, valued at either $1.5 billion or $450 million, for a bid request issued by the Duterte regime in the Philippines, as well as $2.3 billion to refurbish 43 Apache attack helicopters in Egypt and $556 million to sell 4,569 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles to the United Arab Emirates that were declared excess defense articles in 2014. Potential sales to Hungary, Taiwan, and India, valued at $230 million, $180 million and $155 million, respectively, were notified during the period, which also included Kuwait, Morocco, the Netherlands, and South Korea as possible clients.

As expected, the May 20 notification of the potential sale of 18 heavy-weight torpedoes to Taiwan for $180 million elicited Chinese opposition.


The Trump administration has pressed forward with foreign military sales, triggering calls of concern from some U.S. lawmakers.

Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy

June 2020
By Jeff Abramson

More than 100 members of Congress expressed their “disappointment” over a new U.S. landmine policy in a May 6 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The message noted that reductions in landmine use and casualties could be put in jeopardy.

Rather than geographically restricting landmine use and setting a notional goal of one day joining the Mine Ban Treaty, the new Trump administration policy announced at the end of January allows for using landmines outside the Korean peninsula. The updated policy also allows combatant commanders to authorize landmine emplacements, a power that was previously held only by the president. (See ACT, March 2020.) Thirty-four senators, led by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and including Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, signed the congressional oversight letter. In addition, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined 105 Democrats on the message, led in the House by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

The letter asks Esper a list of 27 questions, grouped into sections. The initial six questions on “specific policy issues” are particularly pointed about whether circumstances have recently changed in terms of threats, weapons technology, and the decision-making process to use landmines. Other questions focus on Pentagon reports that might explain the rationale for the new policy, where landmines might be used, alternatives to the weapons, production, transfer, and stockpiling.

Former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has indicated he would reverse the Trump policy, Vox reported in February.—JEFF ABRAMSON


Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy


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