"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Jeff Abramson

Europeans Cut Saudi Arms Sales

March 2018
By Jeff Abramson

As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman planned visits to Washington and other Western capitals, a number of European countries cut or confirmed prior cessation of arms sales to his country and others fighting in the controversial Yemen war.

The actions by Germany, Norway, and the Walloon district of Belgium did not appear to alter the arms sales plans of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but did build on efforts by the European Parliament and others calling for an embargo on arms shipments to Saudi Arabia.

Yemenis inspect the damage at the site of air strikes in the Houthi-held city of Saada on January 6. (Photo: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)Since fighting began in 2015 between the Houthis, who now control Yemen’s capital, and a Saudi-led coalition backing ousted Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the UN high commissioner for human rights has documented more than 15,000 civilian casualties and noted in February that hostilities were increasing, with all sides responsible for the high civilian toll. In January, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that more than three-quarters of the population, some 22 million people, were in need of humanitarian assistance.

Recognizing the dire humanitarian situation, the European Parliament adopted resolutions in 2016 and 2017 calling for an arms embargo on the Saudis, citing in a Nov. 30 resolution that “dozens of Saudi-led airstrikes have been blamed for indiscriminately killing and wounding civilians in violation of the laws of war.” Although those resolutions were not binding, a number of European countries have announced policies that reflect concern about further arming Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners. A 2015 UN Security Council resolution already bans weapons supplies to the Houthis.

Germany announced in January that it would no longer sell arms to parties fighting in Yemen, a policy change struck as part of efforts to form a new coalition government. Germany in 2016 authorized licenses for the export of “war weapons” to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates valued at 21 million and 13 million euros, respectively, according to a German government report. “Military equipment” licenses, which are broader than just weapons, were valued at 530 million and 169 million euros.

On Jan. 3, Norway announced that it would no longer export arms and ammunition to the UAE, based on “a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Yemen and the increasing risks” associated with UAE military engagement there. The announcement also confirmed Norway’s pre-existing ban on export of arms and ammunition to Saudi Arabia.

Also in January, Belgian media reported the Walloon region had stopped granting licenses to export weapons to the Saudi Ministry of Defense. Quoting Willy Borsus, minister-president of the Walloon government, the reports cited risks of Walloon weapons being turned against civilians in Yemen. Licenses to the Saudi Royal Guard and Saudi National Guard would continue because those groups do not conduct military operations outside the country, according to the accounts of Borsus’ statements. The Walloon region of Belgium, which is able to make independent decisions on arms licenses, is home to firearms manufacturer FN Herstal S.A. In the past, Saudi Arabia has accounted for a large share of Walloon arms sales.

Belgium, Germany, and Norway are states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which includes provisions against selling weapons where they can be expected to be used to commit abuses. Advocates have been pushing treaty members to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but states have generally resisted such direct conversation at their annual meetings. (See ACT, October 2017.)

Preparatory committee meetings begin this month for the fourth ATT Conference of States-Parties, which will be held Aug. 20-24 in Tokyo. Whether greater attention will be paid to the topic remains to be seen.

France and the UK, also treaty members, have continued to sell arms into the region and reportedly will be visited soon by the Saudi crown prince. He is expected to tout civil liberties and anti-corruption efforts, but arms sales discussions are likely. His UK visit reportedly was delayed to this month due to anticipated protests about his role in the Yemen war.

The 32-year-old crown prince, who is a son of the current Saudi king and is his designated successor, is expected to visit Washington as soon as this month. The Trump administration has shown a continued willingness to arm Riyadh, most recently with the Jan. 17 notification of a potential $500 million sale to support Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile defense system. The United States is an ATT signatory.

The Saudis are criticized for the number of civilian casualties in Yemen war.

U.S. May Ease Arms Export Rules

March 2018
By Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration is expected to unveil changes to U.S. conventional arms transfer policies and rules that could speed arms exports.

In January, Reuters reported that the administration is working on a “Buy American” plan that would include a push to sell U.S. weapons abroad and steps to amend export controls. Nothing has been publicly presented by the administration, but revisions to presidentially declared conventional arms transfer policies, as well as rules on the exports of firearms and ammunition, are likely to be among the first changes proposed.

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation on January 10 to prevent the Trump administration from changing export rules on firearms, close-assault weapons, and certain other weapons and ordnance. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)President Barack Obama last updated U.S. conventional arms transfer policies in January 2014 when he issued Presidential Policy Directive 27. (See ACT, March 2014.) The directive set out 10 goals to be considered and a process and set of criteria for making arms transfer decisions. Although the directive does not weigh one goal against another, it does explicitly identify the concept of supporting arms transfer “restraint” as central and refers many times to avoiding transfers to those who would commit or facilitate human rights abuses.

Whether restraint and human rights factors are adequately maintained in a new presidential directive will be closely examined given Trump’s enthusiastic support for arms sales as job generators and his willingness to conclude deals that the Obama administration had withheld due to human rights concerns involving Bahrain, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. (See ACT, October 2017.)

The changes may also include revisions to how the United States treats firearms and ammunition exports. An export control reform process during the Obama administration proposed or enacted changes to 18 of the 21 categories of major weapons and technology controlled under the United States Munitions List, administered by the State Department, moving many items to the arguably less-restrictive Commerce Control List, administered by the Commerce Department. A core rationale for this effort was “building higher fences around fewer items,” and those fewer items were ones that tended to be technologically advanced and give the United States a unique military advantage.

Changes to the first three categories, covering firearms, close assault weapons and combat shotguns, and guns and armaments and their ordnance were drafted but never made public. Concerns exist that Commerce Department control could lead to more U.S. weapons ending up in the hands of unintended users, loss of the ability to prosecute arms smugglers, decreased transparency, and lessened congressional oversight of the arms trade. It is anticipated that those changes would soon be published for review.

In September 2017, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote a cautionary letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Combat firearms and ammunition are uniquely lethal; they are easily spread and easily modified, and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world,” they wrote. “As such, they should be subject to more—not less—rigorous export control and oversight.”

On Jan. 10, Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution that would maintain the existing categorizations. “Our priority should be to make sure that firearms do not end up in the wrong hands,” Torres said, adding that “the responsibility of the Department of Commerce is to promote job creation and economic growth, not assess national security threats.”

The Trump administration is expected to unveil changes to U.S. conventional arms transfer policies and rules that could speed arms exports.

Planned shift on gun exports kicks up storm

News Source / Outlet: 
The Hill
News Date: 
January 11, 2018 -05:00

Mine Ban Membership Grows

January/February 2018
By Jeff Abramson

The Mine Ban Treaty added two new members in December, as the convention marked 20 years since it was opened for signature. During their annual meeting, states-parties welcomed progress and addressed rising casualties, while reasserting a collective goal to meet the treaty’s obligations to the fullest extent possible by 2025.

Rohingya refugee Rashida Begum stands next to her son in a Bangladeshi hospital as he is treated September 30, 2017, after being injured by a landmine while fleeing Myanmar. (Photo: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)Sri Lanka acceded to the treaty Dec. 13, five days before the Dec. 18-21 meeting of states-parties held in Vienna. The Palestinian delegation announced its intention to accede as a states-party during the meeting, completing the process Dec. 29. The treaty will enter into force for both on June 1, bringing the convention to 164 states-parties.

At the meeting, delegations reacted to a report that casualties from landmines, cluster munition remnants, and other remnants of war had risen to at least 8,605 in 2016, the second year of sharp increases from the 3,993 casualties identified in 2014. The 2016 toll was near the number recorded in 1999, when the treaty entered into force. Much of the increase was due to mines used in armed conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, and Yemen, according to the annual “Landmine Monitor” report. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a civil society coalition, released the report just prior to the meeting.

The use of landmines by armed forces in Myanmar along border crossings with Bangladesh and the resulting harm to fleeing Rohingya civilians drew international attention and outcry in 2017. The report identified Myanmar and Syria, neither of which is party to the treaty, as the only countries where it could be confirmed that government forces used landmines in the year prior to the meeting. Nonstate armed groups were responsible for much of the new use of mines, often improvised devices, in at least nine countries. Certain victim-activated improvised explosive devices are considered to fall under the treaty’s definition of anti-personnel landmines, which detonate due to “the presence, proximity or contact of a person.”

In response, delegates adopted a final report that again condemned any use of landmines. “On the 20th anniversary, there is no time for complacency,” said Austria’s Thomas Hajnoczi, who served as president of the meeting.

Approximately 60 countries have landmine contamination, more than half of which are states-parties to the treaty. During the meeting, delegates welcomed a declaration from Algeria that it had completed clearance, and they granted extension requests to five countries. Under the treaty, states have 10 years to clear contamination, but extensions are possible. The meeting also welcomed a declaration from Belarus that it had completely destroyed its stockpile of landmines, after it had missed its four-year deadline in 2008. In total, states-parties have destroyed more than 53 million anti-personnel landmines.

The United States, not party to the treaty, again attended the meeting as an observer as it has done since 2009. During the meeting, Steve Costner, deputy director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement at the U.S. State Department and head of the U.S. delegation confirmed to Arms Control Today that the U.S. landmine policy has remained unchanged. That policy, announced in 2014, disavowed production and acquisition of landmines prohibited by the treaty, permits their use only on the Korean peninsula, and set a goal to “ultimately comply with and accede” to the treaty. (See ACT, October 2014)

Suraya Dalil, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Switzerland and the United Nations in Geneva, will preside over the 2018 meeting, scheduled for Nov. 26-30 in Geneva. In concluding his statement, Hajnoczi said that “given the remaining challenges, redoubling our efforts to fulfill the aspiration is imperative to achieve a world free of anti-personnel mines by 2025.”

The Mine Ban Treaty added two new members in December, as the convention marked 20 years since it was opened for signature

U.S. Undoes Cluster Munitions Ban

In a policy shift, the United States removed a ban on the use of most of its cluster munitions inventory that was to take effect at the end of 2018. A Nov. 30 memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan revised a 2008 policy that called for completely phasing out the possible use of cluster munitions that fail to operate as intended more than 1 percent of the time.

The new policy keeps those weapons in active U.S. stocks until the “capabilities they provide are replaced with enhanced and more reliable munitions.” How that might occur remains unclear. The last U.S. manufacturer who produced cluster munitions that Washington claims meet the 1 percent threshold stopped making them in 2016 and does not intend to renew production, according to The New York Times. The United States stopped buying new cluster munitions for its military in 2007 and, except for a single strike in Yemen in 2009, has not used them since early 2003.

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse explosive submunitions over wide areas. Many submunitions fail to detonate as designed, leaving explosive remnants that later injure or kill civilians. More than 100 countries are states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of the weapons. At the latest convention meeting, treaty members, which include a majority of NATO countries and many U.S. allies such as Australia and Japan, renewed their condemnation of any use. (See ACT, October 2017.)

The new policy retained the previous policy’s requirement for a combatant commander to authorize the use of cluster munitions that would have been phased out. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who in April 2017 introduced legislation that would have barred the use of such weapons, criticized the new policy. “It’s a shame the United States will continue to be a global outlier in using these unreliable and dangerous weapons, and I call on the president to reverse course and reinstate the 2008 policy,” Feinstein said.

Although the policy memo did not list specific places where cluster munitions would be needed, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Dec. 4 said the administration made a “prudent decision to preserve cluster munitions to deter North Korean aggression.”—JEFF ABRAMSON

U.S. Undoes Cluster Munitions Ban

Qatar Arms Sale Sidesteps GCC Crisis

The Trump administration continues to offer arms to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries despite an ongoing crisis within the group. On Nov. 1, the administration notified Congress of a possible $1.1 billion sale to Qatar of design and construction services for runways, hangars, and other facilities. The Persian Gulf country is home to the al-Udeid air base, the largest U.S. military base in the region, and was by far the largest partner in the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program in 2016, which included more than $20 billion for 72 F-15QA fighter aircraft and related weaponry. The deal notified last month “is vital to ensuring the [Qatar Air Force] partners can utilize the F-15QA aircraft to its full potential,” according to the U.S. administration.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps off a plane October 24 at the al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, after flying earlier in the day to Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo credit: ALEX BRANDON/AFP/Getty Images)Calling in part for Doha to cut ties with Iran and terrorist organizations, GCC members Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in June severed relations with and imposed a blockade on Qatar, also a member of the group. On June 26, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said the committee would hold up further arms sales to GCC countries until there is “a path to resolve” its internal dispute. But the administration has continued to notify deals to the group, including more than $15 billion for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems to Saudi Arabia in October and more than $4 billion for F-16s to Bahrain in September.

The potential sale to Qatar is the first notified this year to that country through the FMS program, indicating the administration is not taking a side in the GCC crisis when it comes to arms deals. “Qatar is an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Persian Gulf region,” according to the notification.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Qatar Arms Sale Sidesteps GCC Crisis

The War in Yemen

News Source / Outlet: 
Al Jazeera
News Date: 
November 1, 2017 -04:00

Congress Should Not Cede Oversight on Small Arms Exports



Volume 9, Issue 8, October 5, 2017

In the coming weeks, it is likely that the Trump administration will formally propose new U.S. firearms export rules designed to increase foreign sales but that also make it easier for terrorists and international criminals to obtain lethal weapons. The proposal could also effectively undercut the important oversight role that Congress provides.

With the Trump administration showing far less restraint regarding the transfer of sophisticated U.S. weaponry, it is essential that the Congress carefully review the new firearms export policy approach and use what levers it has to ward off changes to longstanding policies that have served U.S. national security interests in the past.


Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) questioned witnesses on the role of Congress in the oversight of U.S. arms sales during a Sept. 26 hearing. [Photo credit: Senate Foreign Relations Committee]Early in his administration, President Obama launched the Export Control Reform Initiative, based on a review that found the United States was “trying to control too much.” Indicating that it sought to “strengthen the United States’ ability to counter threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the administration proposed and/or enacted changes to 18 of the 21 categories of major weapons and technology controlled under the United States Munitions List (USML), moving many items to the Commerce Control List (CCL).

A thrust of the effort was described as “building higher fences around fewer items” and those fewer items were ones that tended to be high-tech and give the U.S. a unique military advantage. Left undone were the first three categories: firearms, close assault weapons and combat shotguns (category I), guns and armaments (II); and their ammunition/ordnance (III).

The Trump administration is now moving to address arms transfers in these three remaining categories. The Defense Trade Advisory Group, a committee of private sector defense exporters and defense trade specialists that advises the State Department, discussed possible revisions Sept. 8. It is expected that proposed changes will be made public later this month, with an expedited 60-day public review period.

Faulty Logic Leads to Dangerous Risks

At the core of export reform push is the mistaken belief that small arms and light weapons do not merit the tighter controls of the USML because they are neither high-tech nor provide unique military advantages. In reality, however, many of the weapons in categories I-III are the ones most frequently used in violent conflict, in perpetuating human rights abuses, and that can most easily fall into hands of those who seek to undermine U.S. national security.

Recognizing this, in 2002 Congress amended its notification threshold so that it would be informed of potential commercial sales of firearms under USML category I when they were valued at just $1 million, as opposed to $14 million for other major weapons sales. During that notification period, as well as during informal prenotifications, Congress can seek to block or delay sales. During a Sept. 26 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, ranking member Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) pointed to forestalling small arms sales to Turkey and the Philippines as recent examples of Congress’ needed role.

No similar statutory requirement of congressional notification exists for most arms sales under the CCL. According to the Security Assistance Monitor, $556 million in firearms notifications have already gone to Congress through July this year

In a cautionary Sept. 15 joint letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Senators Cardin, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote that: “Moving such firearms from the USML to the CCL would be directly contrary to congressional intent … effectively eliminating congressional oversight of exports of these weapons.”

However, due to the less restrictive nature of the rules surrounding the CCL, the dangers go beyond a lack of Congressional oversight. A number of license exemptions available on Commerce-controlled items may enable illegal procurement and diversion of reclassified weapons, a risk that concerned many current and former enforcement officials interviewed for a recent Institute for Science and International Security report. Different or missing brokering registration and agreement approval requirements, as well as confusion over regulations, may also make it harder to identify and prosecute arms smugglers and illegal exporters. The State Department also has the proper mandate to take into account the impact of firearms transfers on terrorist activity, human rights norms and other considerations beyond commercial interests. Lessening State's role would pose significant risks to longstanding U.S. efforts to advance the support of the rule of law and human rights around the globe.

Next Steps

Given the uncertainty around the impacts of any proposed reclassifications, Congress would be wise to ask the GAO to conduct an assessment of the export control reform initiative to this point and independently identify any risks of transferring items on categories I-III to Commerce control. Leaders should ask the Trump administration to wait until those findings come in so that they can be taken into account in any plans to change current implementation.

Concerned members of Congress should also make their opposition known. If rules are indeed notified this month, they should analyze those closely and weigh in during the comment period. They must also rise above the loud voices that will seek to tie this issue to the Second Amendment. These rules are strictly about the international transfer of firearms, not in any way related to domestic possession.

While the administration can proceed with changes to the USML and CCL without Congressional approval, legislators can also pass laws. If needed, for example, Congress could mandate that their oversight role be retained on any weapons moved from the USML to CCL.

In the end, these are the weapons most responsible for so much suffering in the world and ones that could easily be found aimed at U.S. forces. It is irresponsible to lessen control of their export for simple commercial gain or because they are not America’s most sophisticated weapons. As Senators Cardin, Feinstein and Leahy reminded, “combat firearms and ammunition are uniquely lethal; they are easily spread and easily modified, and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world. As such, they should be subject to more – not less – rigorous export control and oversight.”—JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow


An administration proposal on firearms export rules could effectively undercut the important oversight role that Congress provides.

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