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"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
Jeff Abramson

Explosive Weapons Declaration Endorsed


December 2022

More than 80 countries have endorsed a political declaration that aims to reduce the harm to civilians caused by attacking towns and cities with explosive weapons.

The text of the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians From the Humanitarian Consequences Arising From the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas was finalized in Geneva in June under the leadership of Ireland and adopted at a ceremony in Dublin on Nov. 18.

Irish officials confirmed that 82 countries endorsed the declaration, including the United States and 23 other NATO members. The declaration recognizes the devastating harm to civilians from bombing and shelling in towns and cities and commits signatory states to take action to address harm to civilians. (See ACT, July/August and November 2022.)

Speaking on behalf of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, said, “This political declaration marks a milestone in collective efforts to better protect civilians.” The secretary-general’s message also stated, “Parties to conflict and states must avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and work to remove conflict from urban areas altogether.”—JEFF ABRAMSON

Explosive Weapons Declaration Endorsed

Mexico Files New Gun Lawsuit in U.S. Court


November 2022
 

Aiming to curb arms trafficking into its territory, Mexico has filed a new lawsuit in U.S. courts after its 2021 suit was dismissed in late September.

A boy holds a makeshift gun as a community police force in Mexico in 2020 teaches a group of children how to protect themselves from area drug gangs. Mexico is suing to stop the flow of guns from U.S. manufacturers and dealers into Mexico. (Photo by Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images)The new lawsuit, filed Oct. 10 in federal court in Tucson, names five Arizona gun distributors whose guns are among those most frequently recovered in Mexico and states that those dealers knowingly break U.S. law to enable trafficking. In a video message that day, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard explained that his country cooperates with the United States on drug trafficking and other issues and would like assistance in stopping the flow of weapons into Mexico.

The earlier suit, filed in Massachusetts, was dismissed on Sept. 30. (See ACT, September 2022.) In his decision, Judge F. Dennis Saylor mentioned the limitations placed by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which provides gun manufacturers wide immunity. He added that “while the Court has considerable sympathy for the people of Mexico, and none whatsoever for those who traffic guns to Mexican criminal organizations, it is duty-bound to follow the law.” (See ACT, September 2021.)

Mexico promised to appeal the September ruling and drew a distinction between that case against gun manufacturers and the new case against gun dealers. In a press release Oct. 10, the Mexican Foreign Ministry said it was confident both cases would succeed in court and that they “have already contributed to promoting conversations and actions around the world about halting arms trafficking and the dangerous practices of the arms industry.”JEFF ABRAMSON

Mexico Files New Gun Lawsuit in U.S. Court

U.S. Offering More Arms to Taiwan


October 2022
By Jeff Abramson

The Biden administration has notified Congress of its plan to offer more than $1 billion in weapons and military support to Taiwan as leaders in the Senate advanced legislation for even more armaments in the coming years, drawing new expressions of concern from China.

As tensions over Taiwan grew, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, sponsored by Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), shown in photo, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), to boost foreign military financing funds for the self-governing democracy that China claims as its own. The legislation must next be approved by the full Senate.  (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)The latest potential weapons deals, announced Sept. 2, would provide Taipei with support for its radar surveillance capabilities, as well as 60 anti-ship Harpoon missiles and 100 short-range air-to-air Sidewinder missiles. In total, the administration has proposed more than $2 billion in weapons transfers to Taiwan through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, which includes whole or parts of weapons systems or support services for tanks, combat vehicles, howitzers, ships, and Patriot air defense systems. Congress has 30 days to disapprove the latest sales before the administration can proceed, but no serious effort is being made to block them.

Thus far, the Biden administration has not proposed new sales of weapons with a higher international profile, such as F-16 fighter aircraft, or longer-range capabilities, such as the Army Tactical Missile Systems and Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response, all of which were among more than $18 billion in FMS program notifications during the Trump administration. Such weapons give Taiwan more capabilities to attack the Chinese mainland, approximately 110 miles away.

The Biden administration appears to be following what some are calling the “porcupine” strategy, whereby Taiwan is so well provisioned with weapons that any attempt by China to invade and occupy the country would prove extremely difficult and costly.

Less than two weeks after the arms sale notification, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022. A vote of the full Senate has not been scheduled.. Authored by committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the committee added an additional year and $2 billion in foreign military financing funds to the original bill, raising it to $6.5 billion through fiscal year 2027.

The legislation also directs the State and Defense departments and contractors to expedite FMS program requests from Taiwan.

Menendez welcomed the committee’s vote on Sept. 14, saying that “we are carefully and strategically lowering the existential threats facing Taiwan by raising the cost of taking the island by force so that it becomes too high a risk and unachievable.” In an op-ed in The New York Times in August, he wrote, “We saw the warning signs for Ukraine in 2014 and failed to take action that might have deterred further Russian aggression. We cannot afford to repeat that mistake with Taiwan.”

In recent months especially after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on Aug. 2–3, security concerns around Taiwan have increased, with China and the United States conducting military exercises. China reacted negatively to the latest potential arms sales and legislation, including by sanctioning directors of U.S. weapons manufacturers Raytheon and Boeing.

China claims that Taiwan, a self-governing democracy, is part of China and has vowed to reunite it with the mainland by force if necessary. U.S. President Joe Biden recently suggested that the United States would directly intervene militarily if needed on behalf of Taiwan in the event of a conflict with China. Interpreted by some experts as a change in the long-standing U.S. “One China” policy, such comments have been walked back by U.S. officials, but still have contributed to mounting tensions.

The latest U.S. offer is valued at $1 billion, as Taiwan seeks to build its defenses amid rising tensions with China.

ATT Meeting Focuses on Post-Transfer Arms Controls


October 2022
By Jeff Abramson

Improving control over weapons after they have been delivered was the theme of the annual conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which took place during a time of massive weapons transfers by treaty members responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The annual conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty discussed improving controls over weapons after their delivery against the backdrop of the Russian war on Ukraine. In this photo, Ukrainian forces fire a U.S.-made M777 howitzer on the front line in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on Aug. 1.   (Photo by Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)Under the treaty, member states agree to consider the risks that arms transfers would undermine peace and security or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights laws. Very little discussion of specific transfers took place during the formal sessions, held in Geneva on Aug. 22–26, but a few countries spoke of the war in Ukraine, saying that the treaty should be interpreted so as to prohibit transfers to Russia.
(See ACT, October 2021.)

For example, the Netherlands called “on all our ATT partners to refrain from supplying weapons to the Russian Federation due to an overriding risk of misuse.” The United Kingdom encouraged all states-parties that have not suspended such transfers “to reconsider, in line with their treaty obligations.” The European Union argued that, “[i]n the current unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression by Russia in Ukraine, given the many grave breaches by Russia of the Geneva Conventions, including attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians, arms transfers to Russia would not be permitted under the ATT.”

Austria, while noting that its neutrality leads it not to provide weapons to Ukraine, said, “we fully acknowledge the right of Ukraine to acquire arms for self-defense against the illegal invasion by Russia.” Although Ukraine is a signatory, neither it nor Russia are states-parties to the treaty or are mentioned in the final report that was adopted by conference participants.

Delegates considered a range of recommendations for the post-shipment phase of transfers with the goal of preventing weapons diversion and addressing risks associated with the arms trade. In the final report, states-parties were encouraged to continue such discussions, which also will be taken up in the working group on effective treaty implementation.

Noting that discussion of specific transfers is often lacking, Cindy Ebbs, co-director of the civil society coalition Control Arms, told Arms Control Today on Sept. 14 that it was a positive sign that the Diversion Information Exchange Forum met for the first time during this year’s conference. Established in 2020 but delayed from meeting in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the forum is meant to provide an opportunity for states to share cases of suspected or detected diversion. It is controversial because it is open only to states-parties and signatories. (See ACT, September 2020.)

During the forum, four countries discussed specific diversion cases in what was reported to be a productive exchange. Ebbs continued to argue that the forum should be open to civil society, but welcomed the effort for countries to discuss concrete implementation challenges.

With the recent ratifications by Gabon and the Philippines, the ATT has 112 states-parties. The United States, whose 2013 signature to the treaty was rejected by President Donald Trump in 2019, sent a delegation to the meeting, which did not speak during the formal sessions. Last year, the U.S. delegation indicated that a new conventional arms transfer policy would be released shortly and help define Washington’s relationship to the treaty. That policy has yet to be released.

The ninth conference of ATT states-parties, led by South Korea, will be held in Geneva on Aug. 21–25, 2023, with an expected special focus on the role of industry.

As weapons shipments flood Ukraine, states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty are discussing improving controls over weapons after they have been delivered.

Meeting Flags Cluster Munitions Harm in Ukraine


October 2022
By Jeff Abramson

States-parties to the treaty banning cluster munitions have reaffirmed their commitment to that goal amid the escalating challenges posed by the widespread use of the weapons in the war in Ukraine.

A tail section of a 300mm rocket which appears to have contained cluster bombs launched from a BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher is seen embedded in the ground on July 3 after shelling in Kramatorsk, amid the Russian war on Ukraine.  (Photo by Genya Savilov / AFP via Getty Images)The members of the Convention on Cluster Munitions held their annual conference Aug. 30–Sept. 2 in Geneva. The president of the meeting, Aidan Liddle, UK ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, said in his opening address that “our determination to achieve a world entirely free of any use of these weapons…is tested by the scenes we have witnessed since Russia launched its unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine in February this year.”

In recent years, whether to name specific instances of use and how to express condemnation have been contentious issues at annual meetings of the convention. (See ACT, October 2021.)

In the final report adopted at this year’s conference, delegates said that, “in accordance with the object and provisions of the convention, [they] condemned any use of cluster munitions by any actor.” They also expressed their “grave concern at the increase in civilian casualties and the humanitarian impact resulting from the repeated and well-documented use of cluster munitions since the second review conference. This grave concern applies in particular to the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine.”

The Cluster Munition Monitor, published by the Cluster Munition Coalition, identified at least 689 casualties during cluster munitions attacks in Ukraine in the first half of 2022. That is more than four times the 149 casualties it identified for the entire previous year across nine countries plus Nagorno-Karabakh and Western Sahara, all of which were attributed to weapon remnants rather than new attacks. The vast majority of the cluster munitions use in Ukraine was done by Russian forces. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a party to the treaty.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2010, has 110 states-parties and 13 signatories, numbers that have not changed since 2020. Under it, countries commit to clear within 10 years cluster munitions contamination from territory they control. At this year’s meeting, Chad received approval for an extension to this deadline, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Chile received new extensions after having been granted short ones at last year’s review conference.

According to the Mine Action Review, 25 countries and three other areas remain contaminated with cluster munition remnants. Collectively, they cleared more than 151 square kilometers of contaminated territory in 2021, an annual record. Of 10 states-parties having contamination, the report found that only Afghanistan was on track to complete clearance without needing another extension, although it also noted that regime changes there “could still derail its progress.”

Abdulkarim Hashim Mustafa, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, was named president of next year’s annual meeting, planned for Sept. 11–14.

 

States-parties to the treaty banning cluster munitions reaffirmed that goal as the use of the weapon escalated during the war in Ukraine.

Congress Notifications Reinstated on Some Gun Exports


September 2022
By Jeff Abramson

The Commerce Department has decided to begin notifying Congress about some applications for semiautomatic gun export licenses, updating a controversial Trump-era regulation that removed the weapons from such congressional review. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Congress seems to be regaining some of the oversight over the export of semi-automatic guns that was taken away by the Trump administration. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)The move, which took effect in mid-July, falls short of a promise made by then-former Vice President Joe Biden during his presidential campaign to return oversight for such exports to the State Department, which administers the U.S. Munitions List (USML) and the provisions under the Arms Export Control Act that provide mechanisms for Congress to block arms sales. Instead, the weapons that fall under the revised rule will remain on the Commerce Control List, which is overseen by the Commerce Department and is undergirded by a different law that does not provide for the same congressional disapproval procedures.

The rules apply to licenses for semiautomatic weapons exports amounting to $4 million or more, averaging $1 million per year on typical four-year licenses, the same dollar threshold that was used for notifications when the weapons were on the USML. The new rules generally will not apply to NATO countries and many other U.S. allies, but will apply to Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey.

A lack of transparency makes it difficult to determine the total value of licenses that will be impacted. According to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, after the Trump-era change from March 2020 to the end of June 2021, nearly $16 billion of license applications were approved, and nearly $1 billion in shipments occurred. Not all of those licenses and shipments were necessarily for the category of semiautomatic weapons that will now be subject to congressional notification.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a long-time critic of the Trump change, issued a statement May 31, saying, “This new rule is a start, but not the goal. I will continue to push the Biden administration to restore the export control of lethal arms like assault rifles and sniper rifles back to the State Department, and in so doing, also restore Congress’ right of review and disapproval under the Arms Export Control Act.”

At a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on July 14, Menendez pressed Alan Estevez, undersecretary for industry and security at the Commerce Department, on this issue. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asserted that the Commerce Department “is helping put more assault weapons in more hands, and this needs to stop.” On July 19, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) raised similar concerns during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

At the hearings, Estevez defended the administration, saying that an interagency process continues to be followed for licenses and that the Commerce Department brings enforcement capabilities that the State Department lacks. He also mentioned Ukraine as a place where it was justified for such weapons transfers to proceed.

On July 14, the House approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2023 fiscal year that included an amendment offered by Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.). The amendment would establish similar notification requirements and disapproval procedures for firearms that had been in the first category of the USML prior to the transfer of oversight from the State Department to the Commerce Department. It is unclear whether the final defense act will include this provision. Last year, the act did not retain the Torres provision, even though it had been included in the House version by a 215–213 vote.

The Commerce Department modifies but does not reverse a Trump-era rule that limited congressional oversight.

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