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Arms Embargos and Arms Sales Codes of Conduct

Trump Favors Arms Industry in Effort to Loosen Export Controls

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If the Trump administration is serious about changing U.S. arms sales policies, it should add much greater transparency into the arms transfer and monitoring process. 

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Volume 10, Issue 6, June 7, 2018

The Trump administration is pushing to make sweeping changes in U.S. conventional arms export policies in order to sell more weapons, more quickly, and typically with less transparency and oversight. One reason given for these changes—advancing economic security—is simply faulty.

Worse still, the policies are dangerous, creating new risks that these weapons end up in the hands of terrorists and international criminals and further undermining the promotion of human rights norms that should be central to U.S. actions.

In mid-April, the president issued a new conventional arms transfer policy, giving the State Department 60 days to submit an implementation plan. In May, the administration also started a 45-day public comment period on regulatory changes that would transfer the control of assault rifles and other weapons of choice in armed violence to the Commerce Department.

If the administration is serious about claims that these changes make for responsible policy, it should add much greater transparency into the arms transfer and monitoring process. Congress, if it does not act to stop these new approaches, should make sure, at a minimum, that it maintains meaningful oversight to prevent abuses that undermine longstanding U.S. foreign policy objectives designed to avoid fueling conflicts around the world and propping up regimes that do not respect the basic human rights of their people.

Background

On April 19, Donald Trump issued a national security presidential memorandum replacing a January 2014 presidential policy directive that, like the 1995 iteration from the Clinton administration, included an unweighted list of criteria to guide decisions on U.S. conventional arms transfers.

Common to these policies are goals to improve the security of the United States and its allies, prevent proliferation, and support relevant multilateral agreements. With the backing of major arms producers, the Trump approach explicitly adds “economic security” as a factor in considering whether to approve arms exports. It promises that “the executive branch will advocate strongly” on behalf of U.S. companies and “maximize the ability” of U.S. industry “to grow and support allies and partners.”

Michael F. Miller, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, U.S. Department of State discusses new US conventional arms transfer policy and proposed changes to firearms exports at Forum on the Arms Trade conference in Washington DC on May 22. (Photo: Stimson Center)The memorandum retains many of the same provisions regarding human rights as the Obama-era conventional arms transfer policy, although consolidating their reference to a single section rather than reiterating them throughout. The new policy, however, does not explicitly say that past records on human rights will be a factor in decisions. It does contain a new commitment to “facilitate” ally and partner efforts “to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.”

Whether the implementation plan due soon from the Secretary of State explains how this will be done remains to be seen, but it is expected that training of forces will be touted as a critical component. Such training was written into arms sales last year to Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

Proposed changes to the regulation of exports were announced May 14 and published in the Federal Register May 24, beginning a public comment period that ends in July.

Specifically, the rules relate to the first three categories of the United States Munitions List (USML) maintained under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), whose lead administrator is the Department of State. Under the proposal, many items would move from the USML to the Commerce Control List (CCL) to become part of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), whose lead administrator is the Commerce Department. Most notably, non-automatic and semi-automatic firearms and their ammunition currently controlled under USML category I would move to new EAR 500-series classifications in the CCL.

The primary rationale given for the change is that these weapons no longer merit tight control. According to the State Department: 

The Department of State is engaged in an effort to revise the U.S. Munitions List so that its scope is limited to those defense articles that provide the United States with a critical military or intelligence advantage or, in the case of weapons, are inherently for military end use. The articles now controlled by USML Categories I, II, and III that would be removed from the USML under this proposed rule do not meet this standard, including many items which are widely available in retail outlets in the United States and abroad.

The revisions were drafted during the previous administration’s export reform control initiative, which sought to build higher fences on fewer items. During Obama’s presidency, action was taken on 18 of the USML’s 21 categories, but frequent mass shootings and an administration more supportive of gun control efforts contributed to the firearms categories going unpublished.

Critics of President Trump, such as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), have pointed to the domestic U.S. gun lobby as the real driver behind these changes and called the decision to move forward “politically tone deaf as our nation reckons with a gun violence epidemic.”

Adding in Transparency and Enabling Assessment

As the Trump administration works to implement these changes, it should build in transparency and process changes that make it possible to assess whether U.S. arms exports are meeting the stated goals of the new policies.

This would not only be good public policy, but such an approach has the potential to address rising congressional and international distress about an administration that has shown less restraint, including by moving ahead with arms sales to Bahrain, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia that the previous administration had held back on due to serious human rights concerns.

As a start, a public accounting and evaluation of training that might go along with arms sales is desperately needed, especially if it will be a cornerstone of an effort to protect civilians. With another round of controversial precision-guided munition sales expected soon to Saudi Arabia (as well as the UAE), it is imperative that much more is shared about how training is done, who receives it, and whether it works.

As the Saudi-led coalition continues to hit civilian areas and an invasion of the port of Hodeida looms that threatens to further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it is not enough to simply say training is important. It must make a difference.

Similarly, much greater transparency into the arms sales process at a public level is critical. Under current procedure Congress is notified of potential major arms sales whether through the foreign military sales (FMS) process or via direct commercial sales (DCS), starting a review period by which it could block agreement to the sale.

Unlike FMS notifications, DCS notifications are not posted on a publicly accessible website, giving the American people less time to inform their representatives of any concerns. If the administration wants to make it easier for companies to negotiate their arms sales, it should also improve transparency into them.

While Congress can block or amend an arms sale up until a weapon is delivered, those deliveries often occur years after notification. There is typically much less public attention on arms sales during this period. If the administration wants to speed the time between agreement and delivery, it should agree to also make clear when a delivery is imminent, so as to create predictable moments for oversight. In 2014, Congress created a mechanism for receiving notification at least 30 days before delivery when requested on select sales, but has only used the authority once. The administration should instead make this standard on all sales and make it public.

Public reporting afterward, via the State Department’s so-called 655 report, also now has less detail than in the past. These reports, as well as others on end-use monitoring, should provide information on the number of specific weapons involved and other data, rather than broad categorical details. Importantly, reports from the Commerce Department should also improve in detail, especially if the changes on firearm exports are put into place that transfer oversight away from the State Department.

Without these specifics, it becomes more difficult not only to assess these policy changes, but to further goals such as combating illicit trafficking and weapons flows to terrorists and other unintended users.

A recent report from the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Stimson Center offers an array of good suggestions that run the life of a weapon—from pre-transfer to end-use monitoring—with “trigger” mechanisms along the way that allow for reassessment as situations change. Those recommendations, primarily focused on protecting civilians but also relevant to promoting human rights and international law, deserve strong consideration.

The Value of Congressional Oversight

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 a Sept. 26 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, then-ranking member Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) pointed to forestalling small arms sales to Turkey and the Philippines as recent examples of Congress’ needed role. In 2017, the administration notified Congress of more than $660 million of proposed firearms sales regulated under the USML, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.)No similar statutory requirement of congressional notification exists for most arms sales under the CCL, meaning Congress would lose its oversight role on these weapons. It could take steps to require that notification continues. In response to the new measures, Cardin said May 15

For years, I advised both the Obama and Trump Administrations against this type of transfer. Weakened Congressional oversight of international small arms and munitions sales is extremely hazardous to global security.  Small arms and light weapons are among the most lethal weapons that we and other countries export because these are the weapons that are most likely to be used to commit atrocities and suppress human rights, either by individuals, non-state groups, or governmental security and para-military forces.

While Congress does not have control over the president’s conventional arms transfer policy, it can mandate the types of transparency recommended above, including an expansion on pre-delivery notifications. It could also pass legislation that retains the classification of firearms as military weapons and placement on the USML.

The Administration’s Faulty “Economic Security” Excuse

According to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States remains the leading and expanding provider of major conventional weapons into a growing international arms market. Russia, long the number two arms exporter, is in decline as Washington accounts for more than one-third of all major weapons deliveries.

It begs credulity to argue that the United States needs a special push in order to compete in the international arms market. Linkages of U.S. jobs to international arms sales are also overblown as arms deals frequently come with co-production agreements or other incentives that support jobs abroad rather than at home.

At a more fundamental level, U.S. arms are not like any other commodity and should not be treated as such. These are first and foremost killing machines. The over-emphasis on economic security threatens to jeopardize higher priorities, including peace and security concerns. If more weapons flow to countries with poor human rights records, norms around responsible weapons use and transfer will be harder to build and uphold.

Regarding firearms, these weapons are controlled because a significant amount of violence that occurs, including against U.S. military and law enforcement personnel, is inflicted by small arms. Research indicates that the types of weapons being transferred to Commerce control—AR-15s and AK-47 style assault rifles and their ammunition—are “weapons of choice” of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Many can also be easily converted to fully automatic weapons, which will remain under USML control. U.S. military members often operate their fully-automatic-capable weapons in a semi-automatic or less-than-automatic mode.

The transfer of firearms export control to the Department of Commerce will also likely remove a number of brokering registration requirements, may open up license exemptions that facilitate weapons ending up in the wrong hands, and limit legal or investigative actions to stop such results.

Claiming that these weapons do not have military utility because they may be commercially available, are somehow less dangerous,or do not merit stronger international control, is wrong.

In the end, these policies continue the wrong-minded approach of the Trump administration to treat weapons as any other trade commodity, threatening to undermine long-term global security and true U.S. national security interests.—JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow

Posted: June 7, 2018

Proposed Major U.S. Arms Export Agreements, January 2017—December 2017

February 2018

The value of proposed U.S. major conventional arms sales agreements through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program totaled just more than $63 billion in 2017—nearly identical to the amount in 2016. In May, new U.S. president Donald Trump touted potential major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which accounted for the largest portion of the 2017 FMS notifications and also raised the most controversy. Traditional “northern” allies Canada, Poland, and Romania were the only other countries requesting $5 billion or more in sales. In total, notifications were made involving 28 different countries plus NATO in 2017.

The United States conducts government-to-government arms transfers through the Defense Department’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Not all notified sales result in final transactions. Under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, Congress must be notified of proposed sales of “major defense equipment”—as defined on the U.S. Munitions List—that equals or exceeds $14 million; defense articles and services that are not defined as “major defense equipment” that total $50 million or more; and construction or design services amounting to or surpassing $200 million.[1] However, if the proposed sale involves NATO members, Australia, Israel, Japan, South Korea, or New Zealand, the notification thresholds are $25 million for major defense equipment, $100 million for other defense articles and services, and $300 million for construction or design services.[2] Once notified, Congress has 30 calendar days (15 in the case of NATO members, Australia, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand) to block a sale by passing a joint resolution of disapproval, although it has never stopped a sale once formally notified.

On May 20, during his first overseas visit as president, Trump announced $110 billion in prospective arms sales to Saudi Arabia, leaving many specific details to be worked out later. In October, the single largest portion was notified to Congress, the potential sale of 7 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) radars and related missiles and other equipment valued at $15 billion. This followed a controversial roughly $510 million direct commercial sale of precision-guided munitions and related services that 47 Senators unsuccessfully voted to block in June. President Obama had suspended such munition sales in late 2016 due to concerns regarding civilian deaths caused by Saudi actions in Yemen, where a humanitarian crisis has developed as Saudi-led forces battled with Houthi forces who moved into the Yemeni capital Sana’a in 2014. 

Other missile defense systems, aside from THAAD, accounted for high value potential arms agreements in 2017. Roughly $10.5 billion of the $11.2 billion of arms offered to Poland consisted of radars, missiles, other components and training for the first phase of a Patriot 3+ system. Romania requested 7 radar sets, fire units, and related missiles for a Patriot 3+ system ($3.9 billion of roughly $5 billion request). Instead of missile defense, much of Canada’s request consisted of 18 F/A 18 Super Hornet fighter aircraft ($5.2 billion).

Below is a chart of the top four countries that sought the highest values in U.S. arms exports via the FMS program in 2017, along with some of their specific requests. 

Country

Total Value

Weapons/Services

Saudi Arabia

$17.19 billion

  • AN/TPY-2 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) radars

  • 44 THAAD launchers

  • 360 THAAD missiles

  • 10 74K Persistent Threat Detection System aerostats

  • Navy and Air Force training

Poland

$11.2 billion

  • Phase one of a two phase Patriot 3+ missile defense system, including 4 AN/MPQ-65 radar sets, launching stations, and 208 PAC-3 missiles (missile segment enhancement – MSE)

  • 25 guided multiple launch rocket systems rockets/warheads (GMLRS) and 1,642 guidance and control assemblies for GMLRS

  • 150 AIM-120C-7 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs)

  • F-16 support

Canada

$5.57 billion

  • 10 F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter aircraft

  • 8 F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter aircraft

  • 32 AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to Air Missiles (AMRAAMs)

  • Sustainment support for C-17 transport aircraft

Romania

$5.15 billion

  • 7 Patriot 3+ modernized units including 7 AN/MPQ-65 radar sets, and 56 Guidance Enhanced Missile-TBM (GEM-T) missiles and 168 PAC-3 missiles (missile segment enhancement – MSE)

  • 54 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) launchers, 162 guided multiple launch rocket systems rockets/warheads (GMLRS)

 

Although many of these sales were already being discussed during the previous Obama administration and were generally uncontroversial, Trump did move forward a number of deals that Obama withheld due to human rights concerns. In addition to the precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia via the direct commercial sales (DCS) program, these included deals notified via FMS of 19 new F-16 fighter aircraft and upgrades to 20 F-16s to Bahrain in September (approx. $4 billion), and 12 Super Tucanos light attack aircraft to Nigeria in August ($593 million).

Below is a table of all 28 states, along with the NATO Support and Procurement Agency, which requested U.S. arms sales via the FMS program in 2017, in billions of dollars, in order:

Country

Total Value

($ billion)

Saudi Arabia

17.187

Poland

11.200

Canada

5.565

Romania

5.150

Bahrain

3.964

Australia

2.873

Greece

2.484

UAE

2.000

United Kingdom

1.585

Iraq

1.506

New Zealand

1.460

Taiwan

1.363

Kuwait

1.201

Qatar

1.100

Kenya

0.671

Nigeria

0.593

Czech Republic

0.575

Singapore

0.481

India

0.441

Israel

0.440

NATO

0.334

Norway

0.170

Slovakia

0.150

Netherlands

0.145

South Korea

0.140

Switzerland

0.115

Japan

0.113

Georgia

0.075

Thailand

0.025

Below are the total values of all notified requests each year from 1997 to 2017, in billions of U.S. dollars, as compiled each year (in current dollars, unadjusted for inflation):

Year

Total Value
($, billions, current US dollars)

2017

63

2016

63

2015

51

2014

40

2013

56

2012

53

2011

25

2010

103

2009

39

2008

75

2007

39

2006

37

2005

12

2004

12

2003

7

2002

16

2001

19

2000

12

1999

21

1998

12

1997

11

ENDNOTES

1. The Department of State is also required to report to Congress any commercial sales it approves of “major defense equipment” that amount to $14 million or more, defense articles and services that equal or exceed $50 million, and any items defined as “significant military equipment.” As in the case of FMS sales, Congress can block the sale with a joint resolution of disapproval within 30 calendar days of notification (15 in the case of NATO members, Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea). Commercially licensed sales of firearms controlled under category I of the U.S. Munitions List valued at $1 million or more must also be notified to Congress but are not considered here. There are no official compilations of commercial agreement data comparable to the FMS notifications and what exists is often incomplete and less precise than data on government-to-government transactions (Theohary, Catherine A., Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2008-2015, Washington, D.C., Congressional Research Service, December 19, 2016, p. 16), although the non-profit Security Assistance Monitor is compiling much of this information from public data (including on direct commercial sales [DCS], which are generally in the tens of billions but not as large as FMS). The annual Section 655 report, prepared by the State and Defense Departments for Congress, details commercial licenses approved, but states typically have four years to act under the licenses. The State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls has final responsibility for license applications for commercial defense trade exports and all issues related to defense trade compliance, enforcement, and reporting.

2. Congress approved the higher notification thresholds for NATO members, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand in legislation passed in September 2002. South Korea was added to this list in 2008, and Israel was added in 2010. Congress, however, is free to pass legislation to block or modify an arms sale at any time up to the point of delivery of the items involved.

Sources: Congressional Research Service, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and Department of State. For more details on Foreign Military Sales and other U.S. programs that result in arms transfer authorizations and deliveries, please also see the Security Assistance Monitor.

Conventional Arms Issues

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Posted: February 6, 2018

Congress Should Not Cede Oversight on Small Arms Exports

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

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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.

Background

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

Posted: October 5, 2017

Fight Brewing on Saudi Arms Sales

Fight Brewing on Saudi Arms Sales

Yemenis wrap in shrouds the bodies of members of the same family during their funeral on October 8, 2016, a day after they were killed in a reported airstrike by Saudi-led coalition airplanes that hit their house in Bajil. (Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)As Donald Trump began his first international trip as president, the State Department notified Congress of its intent to sell more than $500 million in precision-guided munition components and related services to Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration had put the deal on hold in December, in part due to independent reports that Saudi forces have repeatedly struck civilian areas in Yemen, including locations the United States asked be placed off-limits. Legal analysis provided to the American Bar Association and shared with senators May 19 indicated that such a sale should not occur “until Saudi Arabia had ceased violating international law.”

Many of the same members of Congress who opposed a controversial tank deal with Riyadh in September 2016 are now leading efforts to block the sale. (See ACT, October 2016.) At least one vote is expected this month on a resolution against the sale as Congress considers exercising its ability to prohibit the administration from concluding an official agreement during the first 30 days after notification. In co-sponsoring a resolution of disapproval on May 25 with Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said, “Given Saudi Arabia’s past support of terror, poor human rights record, and questionable tactics in its war in Yemen, Congress must carefully consider and thoroughly debate if selling them billions of dollars of arms is in our best national security interest at this time.” The deal promises to be the first test of Trump’s ability to deliver on a broader $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia announced May 20. Writing in the Huffington Post on May 20, Murphy called the arms sale “a terrible idea.”—JEFF ABRAMSON

Posted: May 31, 2017

Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Should be Rejected

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Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Should be Rejected

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Volume 9, Issue 3, May 2017

President Donald Trump is set to make his first foreign trip as president to the troubled Middle East region. He will meet with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, as well as the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition’s war there will certainly be key topics. So too will pending U.S. arms sales to Riyadh and Manama that the Obama administration put on hold but the Trump administration is now pushing through Congress.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 19, 2017. DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. BrantleyThe potentially massive Saudi arms sale, involving precision-guided munitions (PGM) worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was suspended by Obama in December, in part due to independent reports that Saudi forces have repeatedly struck civilian areas, including locations the United States asked be off-limits.

The new Saudi arms deal has not yet been formally notified, but it has been sent to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee for review. A multi-billion dollar sale of 19 F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain is in a similar pre-notification status and does not include human rights preconditions that the President Barack Obama administration had mandated. Reports suggest an even larger Saudi arms deal, ranging in value from $100-300 billion, may be in the works and discussed while Trump is in the region.

The Trump administration initiative ignores Saudi Arabia’s repeated failure to avoid civilian targets and would compound the growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen that is largely the consequence of the devastating conflict there.

Unfortunately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson devalued promotion of human rights in an address to his State Department staff on May 3, suggesting that placing an emphasis on others upholding American values “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others, has delivered a passionate rebuttal of this argument.

In addition, there are strong national security and legal reasons why these proposed sales are unwise.

A Deteriorating Disaster in Yemen

The Yemeni rebel movement, the Houthi, seized the capital Sanaa in 2014. Since 2015, the United States has backed a Saudi-led coalition fighting nominally on behalf of exiled president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, often providing refueling for war planes and other support. The coalition has retaken portions of Yemen, including Aden, which Hadi ostensibly uses as a base for his government. But many Yemenis still live in areas outside of Hadi’s control, including in the capital Sanaa. All sides in the conflict have been implicated for violations of international humanitarian law, including the Saudis who have ignored U.S. “no target” lists and bombed hospitals, civilian areas, and funerals in attacks that may amount to war crimes.

The war has also fueled a humanitarian disaster. After two years of fighting, the United Nations launched an appeal early this year on behalf of 18.8 million people who it found needed assistance in Yemen—more than two-thirds of the country’s population. At that time, it warned of a possible famine with 3.3 million people being acutely malnourished.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres painted a chilling picture April 25 of what he called “a tragedy of immense proportions,” noting that “On average, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes in Yemen every ten minutes.” Now, Houthi leaders in Sanaa have declared a state of emergency after a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 100 people.

The flow of new weapons to states involved in the conflict will only worsen the humanitarian situation. Ignoring UN findings that a military solution is not possible and pleas to unblock access to ports to help address the “largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” the port city of Hodeida is identified as a next target for the Saudi-led coalition. Despite being crippled by earlier strikes and blocked from receiving new cranes for unloading supplies, a significant portion of humanitarian assistance enters the country through the port. An attack there would likely further cut supplies and significantly escalate human suffering.

News of the potential sale of precision-guided munitions as well as an attack on Hodeida have swirled in Congress since at least March, with many members wisely engaging to express concerns about addressing the humanitarian situation, Saudi behavior, and authority for U.S. military action.

Notionally, precision-guided munitions would better enable Saudi forces to avoid civilian casualties, but evidence suggests that munition accuracy is not the primary reason why Saudi forces are hitting civilian targets. During a March 9 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Yemen, Dafna Rand, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration, testified that despite hopes in 2015 that the Saudi-led coalition would use precision-guided munitions for better targeting, “what we’ve seen since is not an improvement in the targeting and the issue itself is the target selection.

At that same hearing, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) criticized Saudi actions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) described as “questionable” Saudi commitment to strictly targeting combatants and legitimate military targets.

The two senators led efforts that won the support of 27 senators in a vote against a $1.1 billion tank deal to Riyadh in September 2016. They also drafted legislation last year to suspend certain munitions sales until the U.S. president certifies that the Saudis show commitment to fighting terrorism and to protecting civilians in Yemen. Last month, they introduced similar legislation on air-to-ground munitions, now as S.J.Res 40, with co-sponsors Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), who were joined in May by Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Todd Young (R-Ind.).

In a press release associated with the bill’s introduction, Murphy said, “The United States has no business supplying a military that targets civilians or enables terrorist groups to thrive, but that’s exactly what we’re doing right now in Yemen.”

“The Saudis are important partners in the Middle East, but they have continued to disregard our advice when it comes to target selection and civilian protection. We have an obligation to ensure U.S. military support is not being used to kill innocent civilians, and requiring Saudi Arabia to meet these basic conditions should be a no brainer,” Murphy added.

Young has also pressed the administration and the Saudis to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. On May 5, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al Jubeir. Afterward, Young issued a statement urging “the Saudi government to renounce any intention to conduct a military operation against the port of Hodeidah, redouble efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution, and end any delays to the delivery of humanitarian aid caused by the Saudi-led coalition.”

Their efforts followed upon a March 23 letter Marco Rubio (R-Flor.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) sent to Tillerson urging action to address humanitarian crises in four countries, including Yemen. Cardin and Young also introduced a resolution calling for such action.

This week Murphy and Young took the Senate floor May 17 to again highlight the urgency of addressing the crisis in Yemen.

In the House, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) led 53 members in signing a March 13 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, urging him to use “diplomatic clout” to open the port of Hodeida. Lieu and Conyers were among a bipartisan group of 64 House members who had asked Obama to withdraw the tank deal last year.

The two representatives were also among a bipartisan group of 31 House members who sent an April 6 letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Tillerson requesting an assessment of Saudi capabilities before any new precision-guided munition sale is approved. In the letter, they argued, “It is in our national security interest–as well as that of our Saudi partners–to ensure that the [Royal Saudi Air Force] has the ability to avoid civilian casualties before the United States sells them any additional air-to-ground munitions.”

At a more fundamental level, these members of Congress are challenging the authority for this administration to support the Saudi coalition and possibly engage more directly in the conflict. On April 10, a bipartisan group of 55 representatives, led by Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Justin Amash (D-Mich.), sent a letter to Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for the legal justification for U.S. involvement in Yemen's war and urging the administration to receive congressional authorization before launching any direct hostilities against the Houthis.

On May 2, they led in sending a follow-up letter from a bipartisan group of 16 representatives to Mattis inviting him to brief Congress of the administration’s plans for Yemen. They wrote: “Should the administration remain unresponsive to our repeated inquiries into the nature of U.S. engagement in a potentially catastrophic Saudi attack on Hodeida, we will pursue legislation to explicitly prohibit U.S. involvement in any such an assault.”

Such a measure would follow up on a new Authorization of Military Use of Force proposed April 27 by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and nine other Democratic representatives that grants authority to combat the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the Afghanistan Taliban—by logic excluding the Houthi, who are not affiliated with these groups.

Upholding the Law, Security, and Rights

Members of Congress identified above are raising the right concerns. Looking just at arms sales, Congress may block agreement to a deal if both houses pass a resolution of disapproval in the first 30 days after being notified of a potential arms sale. Strong opposition is rare because notifications typically happen only after interagency approval and consultations with congressional leaders. In this case, however, opposition is clearly lined up and a messy fight is in the offing if (and when) the Trump administration decides to move forward.

Congress should first look to the law and recognize that the provision of arms is generally prohibited when a country engages in a “consistent pattern of gross violations” of recognized human rights. Until it is satisfied that Saudi behavior can and will improve, it should not authorize new sales to the country.

S.J.Res 40 underscores this point on air-to-ground munitions and deserves Congressional support. That bill, if approved, would impact not only the anticipated precision-guided missile sale but also a $1.3 billion deal that went through Congress in November 2015. For the first and only time, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invoked a new authority that requires the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the delivery of an arms shipment. Congress should continue to monitor possible delivery of munitions from that deal as it looks ahead to a new notification.

As the Hadi government appears to fracture and evidence mounts of it working alongside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), congressional leaders must also ask themselves if supporting that regime and doubling-down on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign makes sense for U.S. security goals. It is difficult to see how it does.

Capturing Hodeida will not, as some claim, force the warring parties to the table to negotiate a political settlement. While Iran provides some support, the Houthi are their own masters and practice a form of Shia Islam nearly entirely indigenous to Yemen, but an attack on Hodeida would more likely drive the Houthi closer to Tehran. Furthermore, as long as the United States provides weaponry and assistance to Saudi war-fighting, the Saudis appear to have no incentive to offer a political solution.

In revising U.S. conventional arms transfer policy in January 2014, Obama included the goal of “Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.” The United States is also a signatory to the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which requires consideration of whether transferred arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law—measures consistent with U.S. law.

The Trump administration has not yet issued a new arms transfer policy or made a compelling case for abandoning the humanitarian principles of U.S. law and policy.

It would be counterproductive, in fact, to abandon these humanitarian concerns because doing so would only encourage other states to supply arms to groups and countries that support abuse and actions counter to U.S. goals. U.S. actions themselves, even if indirectly through the support of others, help to radicalize individuals against Washington when they are seen as targeting civilians.

Applying Same Standards to Bahrain and UAE

Garnering less attention in Congress thus far has been the pending notification to sell F-16s to Bahrain, a Saudi-coalition partner. In considering such a sale in 2016, the Obama administration attached an undisclosed set of preconditions to encourage the Bahraini government to improve its human rights record. Those conditions likely included the release of human-rights activist Nabeel Rajab and other measures to reverse suppression of nonviolent opposition after the forced closure of the al-Wefaq political party.

Those and many other steps have not been taken. Instead, on Friday the United Nations Committee Against Torture warned of continued ill-treatment of detainees and called on Bahraini authorities to release Rajab, who had been held in solitary confinement for more than nine months. Just as a deal to arm Saudi Arabia with offensive weapons would signal that the United States is unconcerned with how a country addresses human rights, so too would a new F-16 sale to the repressive Bahraini regime.

The national security goals are also unclear. F-16s appear to have little relevance in combating AQAP or the Islamic State. Nor do they further efforts that might resolve problematic Iranian activity.

Further complicating the situation, just last week, Congress was notified of a potential $2 billion sale of Patriot missiles to the United Arab Emirates, whose forces are expected to be in the vanguard of any offensive on Hodeida. Even though that sale would not be of “offensive” weapons, serious concerns about detainee abuse should also give Congress pause as to whether to reward Abu Dhabi.

While there are certainly many challenges in the Middle East, agreeing to arms deals with regimes in Riyadh and Manama that have a record of impunity when conducting airstrikes or suppressing their citizenry runs counter to long-standing U.S. principles and goals.

—JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow 

NOTE: This Issue Brief has been updated to reflect the fact that Houthi fighters seized the capital Sanaa in 2014, not 2015.

Posted: May 18, 2017

On travel bans: Instead of refugees coming out, look at weapons going in

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill. The Trump administration's new executive order on immigration, replacing the currently-blocked “Muslim ban,” will be top-line news. Likely lost in the conversation will be the vast amount of weaponry the United States has supplied in and around the conflict zones from which refugees are fleeing. The United States remains the world’s top major arms dealer at a time when the volume of global arms transfers has reached its highest point since the Cold War , according to a report released Monday by the well-respected Stockholm International Peace...

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This guest post is written by Jeff Abramson, organizer for the Forum on Arms Trade and nonresident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association. The assessments here are not endorsed by other experts, the Arms Control Association, the Forum on the Arms Trade, nor the candidates. The next U.S. president will need to make many decisions that are fundamental to how the United States provides weapons and training to other parties, supports (or disregards) agreements to responsibly trade arms and in some cases ban those the international community has deemed unacceptable , as well as how it...

Proposed Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia Should be Withdrawn; Future Transfers Put on Hold

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If the U.S. is sincere in its desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, it can and should existing U.S. law and its signatory status on the Arms Trade Treaty to encourage better behavior.

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Volume 8, Issue 4, September 6, 2016

During the middle of the summer legislative recess, the Barack Obama administration notified the U.S. Congress Aug. 8 of the proposed sale of $1.15 billion in tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia, starting a 30-day clock for House and Senate review.

Within a week, news broke of yet more civilian deaths at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen, including a strike on a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF); that strike subsequently led the organization to withdraw its staff from multiple facilities in the country. Last week, airstrikes reportedly targeted an imam’s family, killing civilians, including children.

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams with TUSK equipment (Photo: Wikipedia)In response to the hospital bombing, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said “U.S. officials have regularly engaged with Saudi officials… as well as other coalition members on the importance of mitigating harm. As part of this, we’ve also encouraged them to do their utmost to avoid harm to entities protected by international law such as this hospital.”

If the administration is sincere in its desire to hold Saudi Arabia accountable and leverage such sales in ways that encourage it to change its behavior, President Barack Obama should withdraw this sale and suspend delivery on those agreed earlier, rather than continue to reward Riyadh for its actions. Such steps would reinforce the importance of human rights and international law in U.S. arms transfer decisions.

Congress on Alert

Last week, a bipartisan group of 64 House representatives asked the president to withdraw the Saudi arms sale notification, arguing in part that they had not been given sufficient time to exercise their review responsibilities. That is a wise request, as Congress, which resumes work on Sept. 6, will have a small window of time to consider and vote on legislation in both the House and Senate to block the sale before the 30-day period expires.

After the initial review period, the president can proceed with the arms transfers. Nonetheless, Congress can still act up until delivery, which often occurs years later. If the president fails to withdraw the sale, then Congress should pursue a blocking path.

The Arms Export Control Act was amended in 2014 to allow Congress to request notification at least 30 days before delivery. Such pre-delivery notifications, however, require a joint request of the chair and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) or House Foreign Affairs Committee. SFRC Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) used these provisions for the first time late last year over a separate arms transfer to Saudi Arabia. Once again, they should exercise their authority to receive pre-delivery notification for this deal.

A Better Path

The problems with the proposed arms sales, however, go far beyond the limited time for congressional review. Arming Saudi Arabia only encourages irresponsible behavior and the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons, despite U.S. commitments to take into account such abuse in arms transfers.

The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia. The country is the leading developing world arms purchaser (according to a recent Congressional Research Service report), and has increased its arms imports by 275 percent from 2011 to 2015 relative to the previous five years (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute-SIPRI). In addition to the August notification, the administration has recently proposed providing support services, Phalanx weapons systems (February 2016), and more than $1 billion in guided bombs and air-to-ground munitions (November 2015).

The Saudi-led coalition’s actions (as well as those of the Houthi) have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. Last week, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, called for independent investigations into abuses in Yemen. In March, he said: “It would appear to be the case that the distinction between legitimate military targets and civilian ones—which are protected under international law—is at best woefully inadequate … . And at worst, we are possibly looking at the commission of international crimes by members of the [Saudi-led] Coalition."

Internationally, Saudi actions have been widely condemned and are leading to growing censure of arms sales to Riyadh.

On Feb. 25, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers. Most European countries have now taken steps to tighten arms transfers and licenses to Saudi Arabia, according to a report issued last month by the ATT Monitor.

In revising U.S. conventional arms transfer policy in January 2014, the president included the goal “Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.”

The United States is also a signatory to the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which requires consideration of whether transferred arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. Although treaty members last month were unprepared to tackle transfers to Saudi Arabia, the United States should set a better example.

Withdrawing the recently proposed sale to Saudi Arabia and holding delivery on those in the works is an opportunity to signal to Riyadh that it must act responsibly and ensure that future U.S. arms transfers are not used to target civilians and violate human rights.

—JEFF ABRAMSON, non-resident senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, and program manager of Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition 

Posted: September 3, 2016

No Further Excuses: Report from Arms Trade Treaty Conference

Rachel Stohl, board member of the Arms Control Association, wonders why more could not have been accomplished at the Second Conference of States-Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.

Cancel Russia Copter Deal, Lawmakers Say

While President Barack Obama seeks economic sanctions against Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine, the Defense Department is continuing to fulfill a $554 million contract with Russia’s arms export agency to supply military helicopters to the government of Afghanistan.

Jefferson Morley

While President Barack Obama seeks economic sanctions against Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine, the Defense Department is continuing to fulfill a $554 million contract with Russia’s arms export agency to supply military helicopters to the government of Afghanistan.

Some members of Congress are objecting. In a March 19 letter, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and four other House members urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to cancel the contract with Rosoboronexport, citing a recent executive order by Obama that imposes sanctions on persons “in the arms or related material sector of the Russian Federation” in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea.

In the past, the Pentagon has supported the Afghan military’s use of the Russian-made, battle-tested Mi-17 helicopter. In 2012, James Miller, acting undersecretary of defense for policy, said the Russian-made aircraft had “proven operational capabilities in the extreme environments of Afghanistan.” Cancellation of the contract would “complicate the maintenance, sustainment, and supply systems required to support the fleet” of the embattled Afghan armed forces, the Pentagon said in response to criticism from Congress and human rights advocates over Rosoboronexport supplying weapons to the Syrian government as it waged a bloody civil war.

When Congress prohibited dealings with Rosobornonexport in 2013, the Pentagon invoked a national security waiver provision in the law and extended the contract, triggering more criticism from Congress.

In November, the Defense Department dropped plans to purchase 15 to 20 additional helicopters from Rosoboronexport. Pentagon officials said at that time they would fulfill the original contract, calling for 30 helicopters to be delivered in batches of six. The second batch arrived in Afghanistan in late February, according to the Itar-Tass news agency, with three more deliveries scheduled before the end of 2014.

When asked for comment, a Defense Department spokesman said in a March 21 e-mail that “the government ensures that termination is authorized in all contracts by including the appropriate termination clauses in each contract” and cited the “requirement to use those termination clauses,” suggesting that termination because of Rosoboronexport’s trade with Syria or Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is not permitted under the contract.

Posted: April 1, 2014

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