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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Jeff Abramson

Declaration Limiting Explosive Weapons Advances


July/August 2022
By Jeff Abramson and Carol Giacomo

A new political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has been agreed and will be opened for signature at a high-level conference in Dublin later this year.

Russia's destruction of Ukrainian cities is driving home the devastating impact of explosive weapons on populated areas. In this photo from June, an elderly woman sits inside her damaged house in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas after a missile strike. (Photo by Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)The declaration, concluded at a meeting in Geneva on June 17, recognizes the devastating harm to civilians from bombing and shelling in towns and cities and commits signatory states to impose limits on the use of these weapons and take action to address harm to civilians.

“With this declaration, we have sent a strong signal that multilateralism can work and we have also sent a strong signal that we are ready to adopt a declaration which will be relevant to current conflicts and to future conflicts,” said Michael Gaffey, the Irish ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva whose government led the process that produced the document.

The declaration “sends out an unambiguous message on the fundamental importance of the protection of civilians in armed conflict and never has that message been more necessary,” Gaffey told delegates representing states, civil society groups and international organizations.

He said a specific date for the signing ceremony is being worked out.

In a written statement that same day, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said, “The implementation of this declaration will change how militaries operate in populated areas, including when the use of explosive weapons is expected to cause civilian harm.”

“It will ensure that militaries take in to account the effect of their actions not only on civilians but also on homes, hospitals, schools and vital resources such as food and energy systems. It also provides for improved data collection, the sharing of best practices and assistance to victims,” he said.

According to research by Action on Armed Violence, 90 percent of the casualties are civilians when explosive weapons are used in populated areas.

Approval of the declaration occurred amid what Coveney called the “appalling consequences” for civilian victims of recent wars in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.

The declaration’s preamble recognizes that civilians and civilian infrastructure are harmed by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, not just at the time of the weapons use, but into the future in what are often called “reverberating effects.”

States that sign the declaration will commit to develop or improve practices to protect civilians during conflict, collect and share data, and provide victim’s assistance.

The key commitment regarding weapons use aims to “ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to help avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining as appropriate from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, when their use may be expected to cause harm to civilians or civilian objects.”

Although some states and many civil society advocates initially pushed for stronger language against weapons use, the international civil society coalition that has championed the process welcomed the text.

Laura Boillot, coordinator of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, said that “the key thing now is that states join this political declaration at the earliest opportunity, and start the important process of work to implement it to impose limits on the use of explosive weapons and work to end this pattern of harm.”

Ireland took on leadership of the declaration process in 2019, following up on earlier meetings, with the initial hope of presenting the document in the summer of 2020. (See ACT, November 2019.) The pandemic delayed the effort, which shifted to virtual and hybrid meetings. (See ACT, April 2022.) The war in Ukraine brought renewed attention to the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons as Russia struck cities and towns with a range of missiles and artillery.

A new political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas will be opened for signature later this year.

Little-Used U.S. Powers Employed to Aid Ukraine


June 2022
By Jeff Abramson

President Joe Biden is taking advantage of rarely used legal authorities to expedite massive new U.S. weapons deliveries and other assistance to Ukraine while continuing to delay issuance of a new policy that broadly defines the purpose of arms transfers.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would not allow a $40 billion spending package to speed through the Senate via unanimous consent. He wanted  a special inspector general appointed to monitor the funds. The Senate voted to approve the spending on May 19 without Paul's changes and President Joe Biden signed it into law on May 21. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)In terms of aiding Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression, the most symbolic move so far was Congress’ decision to pass legislation modeled after the World War II-era Lend-Lease Act, which enabled the Roosevelt administration to quickly provide arms to U.S. allies and turn the tide of that conflict.

The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 passed the Senate by a unanimous voice vote on April 6 and the House by an overwhelming 417–10 vote on April 28. In a speech touting the legislation that day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stressed the importance of “waiving time-consuming requirements on the president’s authority to send critical defensive resources to Ukraine.”

Biden waited until May 9 to sign the bill into law, providing a symbolic counter to Russia’s Victory Day celebrations. “Every day, the Ukrainians pay with their lives,” Biden said at the signing ceremony. “[T]he cost of the fight is not cheap, but caving to aggression is even more costly.”

Although lend-lease authorities already exist, they are rarely used. The new law removes a number of hurdles encumbering Ukraine or other eastern European countries affected by the Russian war, including a prohibition on loans or leases lasting more than five years. Exactly how the president might use the new authority is not clear.

Meanwhile, on April 24, U.S. officials declared that an emergency existed in order to provide $165 million in ammunition to Ukraine under the Foreign Military Sale program. This was Biden’s first use of a rarely invoked authority under the Arms Export Control Act that allows the executive branch to bypass mandated congressional review periods before it can conclude arms sales.

Unlike in 2019 when both chambers of Congress passed resolutions to try to block President Donald Trump from using such an authority for emergency arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Biden did not face any significant opposition to his emergency declaration. Trump had to veto the resolutions, which Congress was unable to override in late July 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The same day the House approved the lend-lease legislation, the Biden administration asked Congress for an additional $33 billion for Ukraine and European security through September, stating that $3.5 billion in existing authority to draw down U.S. stocks was nearly exhausted. (See ACT, May 2022.) The April 28 request included $5 billion in additional drawdown authority, $6 billion for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and $4 billion for the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing program.

On May 10, the House added to the request by passing an even larger $40 billion emergency package in a 368-57 vote. In a press release, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who sponsored the bill, said, “Given the magnitude of the terror campaign being waged against the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian democracy, we are morally obligated to ensure Ukraine has the security and economic aid they need.” The Senate passed the legislation 86–11 on May 19, and Biden signed it into law on May 21.

The law places very few hurdles on the administration’s use of the funds, an issue that prompted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to block an effort to move the bill forward by unanimous consent on May 12. He proposed including language requiring the appointment of a special inspector general to monitor the funds. That could have forced the legislation back to the House despite presidential calls for quick action.

The law requires the Defense Department’s inspector general to provide a report on the funds within 120 days, a report on end-use monitoring efforts within 45 days, and an unclassified report every 30 days detailing defense articles and services provided to Ukraine.

At the same time as it is speeding weapons to Ukraine, the Biden administration continues to delay actions that would clarify its view on the role of U.S. arms transfers more broadly. Specifically, the administration has not used the moment to finally release its new conventional arms transfer policy despite telling congressional offices as least as long ago as July 2021 that a presidential policy that would do more to promote human rights was coming.

During an event hosted by the Forum on the Arms Trade on April 14, Mira K. Resnick, deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security, reiterated that the revised arms transfer policy had the “goal of revitalizing U.S. leadership on democracy and human rights.” But she did not indicate when the document would be finalized.

Civil society advocates have expressed frustration with the delay of the policy release, which they have attributed to administration preoccupation first with the collapse of the Afghan government in 2021 and now the war in Ukraine. To many of those advocates, the policy inherited from the Trump administration places too much emphasis on the commercial value of arms transfers. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

The current policy did not come up publicly during recent Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) preparatory meetings in late April. At the annual ATT conference of states-parties last August, U.S. representatives indicated that the policy would be “finalized shortly and released” and would be used to review “the proper relationship of the United States” to the treaty. (See ACT, October 2021.)

Despite expectations that this administration would do so, it has not taken action to honor the 2013 U.S. signature to the treaty, which Trump rejected in 2019. (See ACT, May 2019.) The vast majority of the countries providing weapons to Ukraine are treaty members. Today, there are 111 states-parties to the treaty, including all NATO countries aside from Turkey and the United States.

 

Invoking rare legal authorities will enable President Joe Biden to expedite deliveries of arms to defend against Russia.

Cluster Munitions Use in Ukraine Spurs U.S. Debate


May 2022
By Jeff Abramson

Spurred by the use of landmines and cluster munitions in the Russian war on Ukraine, Democratic members of the U.S. Congress have called for changes in U.S. policy on such weapons.

After shelling in Lysychansk during the Russian war in Ukraine in April, a man walks past an unexploded tail section of a 300mm rocket which appear to contain cluster bombs launched from a BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)“We strongly believe the credible allegations of Russian use of cluster munitions necessitate a change to the administration’s cluster munitions policy,” 27 representatives said in a letter released April 21.

The group, led by Reps. Bill Keating (Mass.), Jim McGovern (Mass.), and Sara Jacobs (Calif.), argued that past justifications for current U.S. policy, which allows for use of landmines and cluster munitions, “are no longer relevant.”

They pointed to U.S. military efforts to mitigate civilian deaths in war through guided munitions as part of their appeal to President Joe Biden “to take all the necessary steps” to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).

Earlier, on April 7, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also called for the United States to join the convention in remarks on Capitol Hill marking international mine awareness day.

The United States, Russia, and Ukraine are not among the 110 states-parties to the CCM. That treaty bans the use of the weapons, which deliver smaller submunitions that often fail to explode as intended and historically have harmed many more civilians than soldiers.

Almost from the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, global concerns were raised about Russian targeting of civilian areas and use of controversial weapons, such as cluster munitions and landmines. In late March, Human Rights Watch reported on Russian use of a recently developed landmine equipped with a sensor to detect approaching persons. It ejects an explosive charge into the air that can kill and maim individuals up to 50 feet away, making it more harmful with its initial blast and more difficult to demine than many other anti-personnel mines. (See ACT, April 2022.)

The president of the Mine Ban Treaty, Alicia Arango Olmos, who is also the Colombian ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, condemned landmine usage in Ukraine, saying on April 5 that it “violates key principles of international humanitarian law and further exacerbates the heavy toll being brought upon the civilian population of Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported on April 18 that Ukrainian forces had used cluster munitions in Husarivka in eastern Ukraine, the first such reported use by Ukrainian forces since 2015. When asked about Ukraine’s use, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on April 18 that he was not in a position to comment and reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the United States could not independently confirm the usage.

As U.S. policymakers argued that condemnations of Moscow would be stronger if Washington would join the treaty banning cluster munitions, similar assertions were made about landmine policy. There have been no commitments by Biden to change cluster munition policy, but his administration’s responses to queries about landmines may indicate a weakening of promises to restrict their use.

A long-time champion of the Mine Ban Treaty, Leahy said in a speech on April 7 that a decision by the United States to join the treaty “would not guarantee that Russia would, but it would greatly enhance our credibility to call out their use of mines.” In June 2021, a bicameral, bipartisan group of 21 members of Congress called on the president to put the United States on the path to joining the treaty, saying it “will enhance our credibility in seeking to stigmatize the use of anti-personnel mines.”

When asked about the utility of mines during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 7, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed to their use in Ukraine, saying that “anti-tank or anti-personnel landmines are very effective.”

That statement appears to run counter to ones made in 2021 by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the UN, indicating that the Biden administration intended to roll back a Trump-era policy that allowed for the potential use of landmines by U.S. troops anywhere, instead of just on the Korean peninsula, as specified under Obama administration policy. (See ACT, December 2021.) A senior Pentagon official said on April 8 that a review of U.S. landmine policy is still underway and “could be informed by this conflict.”

Although the United States and Russia are not among the 164 states-parties to the Mine Ban Treaty, Ukraine is. There is no evidence that Ukrainian forces are using anti-personnel landmines banned by the treaty.

In announcing $800 million in additional aid to Ukraine on April 13, the Biden administration listed among the transfers “M18A1 Claymore anti-personnel munitions configured to be consistent with the Ottawa Convention,” meaning in a command-detonated mode.

The Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention, prohibits the use of “victim-activated” anti-personnel mines, which are exploded by the presence, proximity, or contact of a person. Command-detonated landmines, those for which a human decides to explode the weapon, are not explicitly banned by the treaty. These include Claymore mines in a command-detonated configuration. The treaty also does not explicitly ban anti-vehicle or anti-tank mines, which typically require heavier than human loads to detonate.

In 2020 the U.S. Defense Department argued that the United States needed to retain the use of mixed mine systems, such as those deployed via Volcano dispensers, that combine anti-personnel and anti-tank weapons in order to “discourage and delay adversaries from hand clearing of minefields intended to block, fix, or channel enemy tanks and vehicles.”

Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, spurred by the use of cluster munitions and landmines in Ukraine, have called for changes in U.S. policy on such weapons.

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