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former IAEA Director-General

Jeff Abramson

How Congress Can Exert Responsible Oversight on Trump’s Dangerous Approach to Arms Sales

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Description: 
Congress has the tools and authority to ensure U.S. arms sales strengthen, rather than undermine, enduring America’s values and norms, writes Jeff Abramson.
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Volume 11, Issue 1, January 15, 2019

In December, the Senate issued a stunning rebuke of President Donald Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia and its actions in the bloody war in Yemen, which are exacerbating a massive humanitarian crisis. A bipartisan group of 56 Senators took the extraordinary step of invoking the 1973 War Powers Resolution to direct the president to cease direct U.S. military engagement in the war, including through any aerial refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft fighting there–a step that had garnered steam since nearly winning approval in March 2018.

In a separate measure, the Senate said by voice vote that it “believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder” of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi—a finding the president has not fully supported. Trump’s refusal to hold the prince accountable and to consider suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the grisly murder further underscores his retreat from common-sense U.S. and international norms regarding international arms sales.

Trump’s lack of concern about human rights and harm to civilians caused by U.S. arms trade partners is not, however, surprising. The conventional arms transfer policy his administration issued in April 2018 dangerously elevated economic arguments as a driving motive for arms transfer approvals. A November 2018 update on implementing that plan and a related factsheet on sales agreements again stress his administration’s desire to expedite the sale of increasingly more weapons, citing as success agreements to supply American arms to repressive regimes in not just Saudi Arabia, but also Bahrain and Nigeria.

Options to Encourage a More Responsible Approach

As the new Congress develops its agenda, both chambers can be expected to pass another resolution that seeks to restrict the role of U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. Members of Congress should also more fully utilize their oversight powers to ensure U.S. arms trade is more responsible. The first opportunity to do so typically comes when the administration delivers customary pre-notifications of potential arms sales to the Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), where the chair and ranking members tend to lead any review.

In June 2018, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking SFRC member, properly placed a hold on tens of thousands of precision-guided munitions kits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Other members of these key committees should, as necessary, consider supporting and initiating such efforts during this pre-notification period in order to hold or amend dangerous potential sales.

Once officially notified, Congress typically has 30 days to pass a joint resolution of disapproval that bars the president from going forward with unwise sales. Over the past few years, the full Senate has publicly debated controversial arms sales to places such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during this notification period—positive examples of what a functioning Congress should do—but House procedures make it very difficult to get such measures to the full floor.

Legislation introduced late in the 115th Congress under the Arms Sales Oversight Act should be revisited as one possible avenue for better empowering Representatives to assert oversight, while properly keeping HFAC as the first committee of review. Other measures, such as an amendment offered on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in 2018 to strengthen oversight as relates to human rights deserve reconsideration. So too does a resolution proposing a comprehensive approach to the conflict in Yemen, especially if it were expanded to incorporate arms suspensions to all Saudi partners, including the critical UAE.

While the public can raise its voice against irresponsible Foreign Military Sales (FMS) because such government-to-government negotiated sales are quickly added to a public website, the increasingly important business-led Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) are not as transparent, in part because any public notification is obscure or functionally comes after the initial review period has passed. Earlier this month, news broke with this exact scenario on a missile defense sale to Saudi Arabia. Members of Congress could insist that, or possibly take it upon themselves to make, these potential DCS transactions more transparent. Proposed sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia via the more opaque DCS process came to light because concerned members of Congress took the initiative to reveal them.

While the notification period garners the most attention, Congress also can block a sale up until weapons are delivered. Given how security, geopolitical, and humanitarian realities can change between the time of notifications and often years-later deliveries, members should follow the entire process. In 2014, Congress gave itself the authority (see Section 201) to receive from the State Department notification of an arms shipment at least 30 days before its delivery. It is currently limited to joint requests by the chair and ranking members of the SFRC or HFAC and may have only been used once. Those leaders should exercise it much more diligently and Congress should consider making it much easier to use by allowing all committee members to request pre-delivery notifications.

In general, transparency around arms deliveries remains too obscure as a New Hampshire NPR reporter recently discovered. When U.S. census export data showed weapons worth more than $61 million had been sold from his state to Saudi Arabia in August 2018, he could not uncover what was in the sales nor which companies provided the weapons. Annual reports on U.S. arms transfers have grown increasingly opaque. Congress should mandate a change demanding much greater transparency on the specifics of what is in U.S. weapons deliveries.

Finally, sometime in the first quarter of 2019, the administration is expected to publish final rules transferring export authority on select firearms from the State Department to the Commerce Department, despite a large number of negative public comments and a great deal of concern. Members of Congress have raised an alarm that they will lose notifications about these sales, which in the past two years has enabled them to forestall small arms sales to Turkey and the Philippines. Last year, legislation was introduced to stop these changes and should again be considered. As with Trump’s broad approach to arms sales, these changes risk making it easier for weapons to end up in the hands of terrorists, international criminals, and abusive regimes.

Just before the December 2018 vote on direct U.S. military engagement in the war, Sen. Menendez expressed concern that the Trump administration believed “selling weapons to the Saudis was more important than America’s enduring commitment to human rights, democratic values, and international norms.” Congress has the tools and must now use its authority to ensure U.S. arms sales strengthen, rather than undermine, those enduring values and norms. —JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow

Posted: January 15, 2019

Senate Bucks Trump’s Saudi Approach

Saudi Arabia faces repercussions due to its murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the civilian casualties from its war in Yemen.


January/February 2019
By Jeff Abramson

The U.S. Senate passed resolutions last month sharply critical of ally Saudi Arabia and of the U.S. military role supporting the Saudi war in Yemen, signaling that arms sales to Riyadh will be controversial even as President Donald Trump insisted that they should not be affected by Saudi behavior.

U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command, welcomes Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi ambassador to the United States, at USCENTCOM headquarters, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., on July 31, 2018. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)The Senate action on Dec. 13 took the rare path of invoking the 1973 War Powers Act and directed the president to remove U.S. forces not directly engaged in Yemen with al Qaeda and associated groups. The resolution cited aerial refueling, intelligence sharing, and targeting assistance provided to Saudi-led forces.

Actions by coalition partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have contributed to civilian deaths and worsened a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where a fragile, limited ceasefire was negotiated in mid-December.

The resolution is not binding without a concurring House resolution. But co-sponsor Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the vote was significant because it shows that “Congress has woken up
to the reality that the Saudi-led coalition is using U.S. military support to kill thousands of civilians, bomb hospitals, block humanitarian aid, and arm radical militias.”

The Senate resolution was originally introduced in February by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and co-sponsored by Murphy and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). An attempt to force a vote on the resolution failed in March when 44 senators sought to move it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (See ACT, April 2018.) In November, 63 senators voted to move it to full Senate consideration. Ultimately, 56 voted to approve it, including all 47 Democrats, seven Republicans, and independents Sanders and Angus King (Maine).

The resolution is expected to have enough support to pass in the new Senate even with Republicans picking
up a small number of seats in the November elections.

New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was one of 101 co-sponsors on the version introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in September, but she has not indicated when the House may take up the issue. A provision included in the House version of the farm bill, around the time the Senate was taking up the measure, prevented consideration of it in the last days of the previous Congress.

The controversial killing of dissident journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Turkey in early October was a spur to congressional action. Shortly after the war powers resolution passed, the Senate approved by voice vote a resolution stating that the Senate “believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder,” a claim reportedly backed by U.S. intelligence assessments even as Trump said on Nov. 20 that “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”

Trump also argued that U.S. arms sales should not be curtailed, frequently citing the economic importance of the $110 billion in Saudi arms sales he announced in 2017. (See ACT, November 2018; June 2017.) But only about a quarter of those notional agreements have been concluded.

According to news reports, the Saudis signed a letter of offer and acceptance in late November for the largest portion so far, a $15 billion deal for seven Terminal High Altitude Area Defense radar systems and 44 launchers, which is the same number of systems that the United States currently deploys. That potential sale had been notified to Congress in October 2017.

No new arms sales to the country via the government-to-government foreign military sales process have been officially notified to Congress since April. In June, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, effectively placed a hold on the sale of precision-guided munition kits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates before they were publicly notified.

In explaining his December war powers vote, Menendez argued that the Trump administration view of the U.S.-Saudi relationship was “unhinged” in thinking that “selling weapons to the Saudis was more important than America’s enduring commitment to human rights, democratic values, and international norms.”

Posted: January 8, 2019

Mine Ban Nears 20th Anniversary

Mine Ban Nears 20th Anniversary

 

With the Mine Ban Treaty approaching its 20th anniversary in March, delegates to the annual meeting of states-parties in November welcomed progress on many treaty requirements and again “condemned the use of anti-personnel mines by any actor” as they reaffirmed their “aspiration to meet the goals of the [treaty] to the fullest extent possible by 2025.”

A fighter with Yemen’s Tariq Salah forces, a militia aligned with the Saudi-backed government, shows landmines reportedly found in September at an outpost of the Houthi rebels.  (Photo: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)According to the “Landmine Monitor” report, only one country could be confirmed to have used landmines in the previous year, which was Myanmar, a state not among the 164 parties to the treaty. Nonstate armed groups used mines in at least eight countries, frequently employing improvised devices, according to a report from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines released just prior to the Nov. 26–30 meeting in Geneva. For the third year in a row, the report also identified atypically high numbers of casualties due to landmines, cluster munition remnants, and other remnants of war. Of 7,239 casualties recorded in 2017, more than 4,200 occurred in Afghanistan and Syria, and more than 2,700 casualties worldwide were due to improvised mines.

The November meeting celebrated declarations from Mauritania that it had completed landmine clearance and from Oman that it had finished destroying its landmine stockpile, steps required under the treaty. The report also noted that international support to efforts to prevent and address problems due to mines reached a record $670 million in 2017.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Posted: January 8, 2019

Who Shipped $61 Million Worth of Weapons From New Hampshire to Saudi Arabia?

News Source: 
New Hampshire Public Radio
News Date: 
December 19, 2018 -05:00

Posted: December 19, 2018

EU countries approve arms sales to Saudi, UAE worth 55 times aid to Yemen

News Source: 
Middle East Eye
News Date: 
November 12, 2018 -05:00

Posted: November 14, 2018

U.S. Weapons Transfers, Pushed by Trump, Rise by 13%

News Source: 
Wall Street Journal
News Date: 
November 8, 2018 -05:00

Posted: November 9, 2018

With North Korean Threats Looming, the U.S. Army Pursues Controversial Weapons

News Source: 
New York Times
News Date: 
October 30, 2018 -04:00

Posted: October 30, 2018

U.S. Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

News Source: 
Forum on the Arms Trade
News Date: 
October 16, 2018 -04:00

Posted: October 18, 2018

Trump uses inflated figures to argue that foreign sales are ties that bind US to Saudi Arabia

News Source: 
Virginia Pilot
News Date: 
October 18, 2018 -04:00

Posted: October 18, 2018

Cluster Munitions Ban Marks Progress

Four more countries complete elimination, as states-parties increase to 104.


October 2018
By Jeff Abramson

Delegates of states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, meeting Sept. 3–5 in Geneva, once again condemned any use of the weapons and celebrated successes in the decade since the treaty opened for signature.

Human Rights Watch has said there is evidence that Sudan dropped cluster bombs on civilian areas of Southern Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains in February and March 2015. (Photo: Human Rights Watch)The annual meeting ended a half day early without controversy as states welcomed the March accession of Sri Lanka and Aug. 31 ratification by Namibia, which will become the 104th state-party when the treaty enters into force for it in February. Conference President Carlos Morales Dávila, Nicaragua’s deputy permanent representative to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva, also congratulated Croatia, Cuba, Slovenia, and Spain for reporting completion of the destruction of their cluster munition stockpiles.

Research published by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor program before the meeting found that 99 percent of stocks declared by states-parties had already been destroyed, a collective total of 1.4 million cluster munitions and more than 177 million submunitions. Under the treaty, states have eight years to destroy their cluster munitions. Thus far, no state has missed its deadline.

As it documented beginning in 2012, the program reported ongoing use of cluster munitions by the Syrian government. Fewer incidents were confirmed in 2018, however, likely a result of difficulty in obtaining information and a change in the Syrian civil war as governmental forces recaptured more territory. Fewer casualties from such munitions were cited, with 187 recorded in 2017 in Syria, down from 860 in 2016, although the report said the total was certainly higher “as available data does not capture all the casualties that occurred.”

The report also identified cluster munitions use in Yemen during the latter half of 2017 by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthi, with such use beginning in 2015. None of the countries involved in the use of cluster munitions in that conflict are parties to the treaty.

As in prior years, states-parties adopted a final report that “condemned any use by any actor” of cluster munitions.

In a video message, Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, called the convention an example of “disarmament that saves lives.” She said that the treaty has “had a concrete impact on the ground,” lauding stockpile destruction efforts and progress on clearance of contaminated land. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, at least 93 square kilometers of contaminated land were cleared in 2017 and at least 153,000 submunitions destroyed, an increase of 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from 2016.

More than a dozen nonsignatories to the treaty attended the meeting, but the United States continued its approach of not attending. Although it is the world’s largest financial contributor to land clearance efforts, Washington insists that cluster munitions remain relevant military tools. In November 2017, the United States altered a policy that was to take effect at the end of this year barring the use of cluster munitions that result in a more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance rate. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

Next year’s meeting of states-parties is planned for Sept. 2–4 in Geneva, to be led by Aliyar Lebbe Abdul Azeez, Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN Office and other international organizations in Geneva. In 2020, Sabrina Dallafior Matter, the Swiss ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, will preside over the treaty’s second review conference.

Posted: October 1, 2018

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