"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Worldwide Arms Sales

“Proposed Small Arms Transfers: Big Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy”

Testimony by Jeff Abramson, Senior Fellow Arms Control Association The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations “Proposed Small Arms Transfers: Big Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy” March 26, 2019 Good morning, Chair Bera and Ranking Member Zeldin. It is a privilege to testify before this Committee and discuss concerns about how the United States exports some of the weapons most used in violence around the world and proposed changes that I fear could lead to greater human suffering. 1 To sum up my forthcoming remarks in just a few lines: The weapons and...

Arms Flow Despite Yemen Deaths

Arms Flow Despite Yemen Deaths

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo avoided a diplomatic clash with Saudi Arabia by certifying to Congress that the kingdom is taking “demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure” from its airstrikes in Yemen. In doing so, Pompeo overruled State Department specialists after he was warned that alienating Saudi leaders by failing to make the certification could jeopardize $2 billion in weapons sales, according to a Sept. 20 report in The Wall Street Journal.

The German government confirmed on Sept. 21 that it is proceeding with delivery to the Saudis of counterfire radar systems for artillery. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government deal early this year called for halting weapons sales to any side fighting in Yemen's civil war, although it reportedly excluded already approved exports. (See ACT, March 2018.)

Spain’s new center-left government reversed itself shortly after saying in early September that it had canceled the planned delivery of 400 laser-guided bombs purchased by Saudi Arabia in a 2015 deal under the former conservative government. Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said on Sept. 13 the government will honor the 2015 contract and noted that such so-called precision munitions can reduce dangers to civilians. Halting of the deal had raised concerns in Spain over the risk to a more lucrative contract, signed in July, for state-owned shipbuilder Navantia to supply warships to the Saudis, according to Reuters.

In a late August report, a panel of UN investigators reported that the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had taken actions that may amount to war crimes, including conducting airstrikes that have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians, torturing detainees, raping civilians, and using child soldiers as young as eight. The report also cited Houthi rebels as committing possible war crimes, including shelling civilians and blocking delivery of humanitarian aid.—TERRY ATLAS


Europeans Cut Saudi Arms Sales

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

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.

Qatar Arms Sale Sidesteps GCC Crisis

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

Russia Completes S-300 Delivery to Iran

Russia completed delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran last month, concluding an $800 million deal signed between the two states in 2007.

December 2016

By April Brady

Russia completed delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran last month, concluding an $800 million deal signed between the two states in 2007, state-run Russian press agency RIA Novosti reported. The S-300 mobile surface-to-air missile system can counter multiple aircraft at a range of 195 kilometers and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 50 kilometers. 

In September 2010, following pressure from the United States and Israel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suspended the agreement in compliance with a stricter UN arms embargo passed in June of that year. (See ACT, October 2010.)

An Iranian military truck carries parts of the S300 missile system during an annual military parade in Tehran on September 21. (Photo credit: Chavosh Homavandi/AFP/Getty Images)Iran protested the decision, filing a $4 billion lawsuit against Russia’s defense export agency and embarking on the manufacture of its own long-range, mobile air defense system, the Bavar-373, which President Hassan Rouhani unveiled in August. 

After Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 agreed on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to constrain and roll back Iran’s nuclear program in July 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted the ban on weapons sales to Iran and signed a new agreement with Tehran, sending the first shipment of parts in April.

Despite classification of the S-300 system as defensive, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly raised objections with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the transaction, said State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau during a May 10 press briefing. “[W]hile we’re opposed to the sale, it is not a violation” of the Iran nuclear deal or UN Security Council Resolution 2231, she said. That resolution formally endorsed the accord.

Since the conclusion of the S-300 system’s sale, Russian state news services have reported that Iran and Russia plan to negotiate a $10 billion deal to supply arms to Iran, which is expected to include artillery systems, helicopters, planes, and T-90 tanks.

U.S. Seeks Rules for Armed Drones Trade

The United States leads an effort to establish norms for “responsible export and subsequent use” of armed UAVs.

November 2016

By Alicia Jensen

The United States has won support from almost 50 countries for an initiative intended to “ensure the responsible export and subsequent use” of armed drones. Absent from the list are key supplier states such as China and Israel and important buyers such as France and the United Arab Emirates.

The State Department on Oct. 5 published a “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)” with 44 countries. By late in the month, a total of 48 countries had signed on to the U.S.-led effort, which aims to increase responsible use of drones by clarifying their legal status and promoting trade transparency.

An armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle takes off on a mission in Afghanistan October 1. The MQ-9 designed and produced by General Atomics has nearly nine times the range, can fly twice as high, and carries more munitions than the MQ-1 Predator. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)The declaration asserts that use of armed UAVs is subject to international law, including the law of armed conflict and human rights law, and that exports should be conducted “in line with relevant international arms control and disarmament norms.” It calls for greater transparency, including reporting of military exports “where appropriate,” and for further international dialogue. 

The declaration is intended to provide a basis for talks, which are to begin in early 2017, on more detailed international standards covering such lethal systems, according to a State Department fact sheet. It is unclear whether other governments will feel much urgency to advance to more specific rules.

The effort is “both desirable and needed,” Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, said in a statement. “However, the joint declaration does not go far enough to ensure that the standards are meaningful, nor does it set a high enough bar to ensure responsible transfer and proper use of military drones.”

Although the size of trade in armed drones is unclear, sales of UAVs and related technology are growing. The total UAV market is expected to more than triple from $4 billion in 2015 to $14 billion in 2025, according to an August 2015 study by the Teal Group. This would total $93 billion in sales over the decade counting the military and commercial sectors. The study projected that the military sector will account for about 72 percent of the UAV market during the period.

The declaration states that transparency is important given that misuse of armed UAVs “could fuel conflict and instability and facilitate terrorism and organized crime.” According to a study last year by New America, countries that have used armed drones include Iran, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The United States has used armed UAVs, sometimes covertly, against alleged terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries. Human rights groups have expressed concerns about civilian casualties over the years. 

In February 2015, the United States established what the State Department describes in the fact sheet as “stringent” export rules for military UAVs and announced its intent to work with other countries on international standards on their sale, transfer, and subsequent use. “While it remains to be seen where exactly this conversation will take us, we hope that even more countries will join us at the table” with that goal in mind, said David McKeeby, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which is responsible for overseeing this effort.

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.

Time to Ban Cluster Munitions Transfers, Rethink Approach to Treaty



How should the United States exercise responsibility in arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other states that fail to adequately guard against civilian casualties in conflict?


Volume 8, Issue 3, July 13, 2016

The raging civil war in Syria, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the ongoing fighting in Yemen have led to massive civilian casualties. The belligerents target civilian population centers and use certain types of weapons, including cluster munitions, that indiscriminately harm civilians. The situation has led many responsible policy makers to call for adjustments in U.S. policy that would reduce access to these weapons—which the United States has not used this decade—and to hold those who would use them accountable.

A man passes by the remains of an Uragan rocket lying in front of a burning house in Donetsk, Ukraine, on October 5. Uragan rockets can be used to deliver cluster munitions. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)In June, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly voted down an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 defense appropriations act that would have barred the use of funds to authorize or transfer cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. The congressional action came after Foreign Policy reported just before the Memorial Day holiday that the Obama administration had suspended such transfers, following evidence of civilian casualties from cluster munitions attacks in Yemen. These actions again drew cluster munitions into the U.S. public spotlight, highlighting both the stigma on these weapons and controversy over U.S. military support for Riyadh’s ongoing war in Yemen.

As the end of the Obama administration approaches, it is time for the United States to put in place a policy that would permanently cease transfers of cluster munitions, move fully toward ratifying the international treaty banning these weapons, and exercise greater responsibility for arms deals with Saudi Arabia and other states that fail to adequately guard against civilian casualties in conflict.

Weapons No Longer Used by the United States

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. In the 20th century, the United States was a leading user, manufacturer, and provider of the weapons, directly using cluster munitions in at least a dozen countries and supplying them to some 30 more. In Laos alone Washington still spends millions of dollars a year—with much more needed—to assist in the cleanup of cluster munitions it dropped more than 40 years ago.

Despite official policy that cluster munitions have military utility, the reality is that Washington is no longer using the weapons. The United States last used them in significant numbers in Afghanistan (2001-2002) and Iraq (2003) and evidence shows that Washington employed as many as five Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with cluster munitions during a December 2009 strike in Yemen. Perhaps due to stigma or the use of other weapons (such as armed drones) no evidence exists of U.S. use of cluster munitions in this decade.

According to the Cluster Munition Monitor, the United States last budgeted funds for U.S. production of new cluster munitions in 2007, but has since sold them to India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. 

U.S. Cluster Munitions Policy Essentially Unchanged Under Obama

In a questionnaire for Arms Control Today in 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama recognized U.S. “forces have been moving away from using cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines ourselves,” and said “these trends can be accelerated.” 

The Obama administration made significant progress on landmines in 2014 by setting U.S. policy to eventually accede to the Mine Ban Treaty and prohibiting U.S. antipersonnel landmines except on the Korean Peninsula. The Korea exception must be overcome, however, before the United States can fully comply with the ban on antipersonnel mines.

The administration has not however changed its general approach on cluster munitions. The United States continues to follow a 2008 policy that bars the transfer of cluster munitions that fail to operate as intended more than 1 percent of the time, resulting in unexploded ordnance. Until 2018 the policy only allows U.S. use of weapons not meeting that criteria if approved by a combatant commander. After 2018, the United States will no longer use, manufacture, or transfer cluster munitions that fail to meet the 1 percent or less unexploded ordnance standard.

The stigma against cluster munitions has grown considerably since the 2008 policy was announced by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In recent years, senior U.S. officials have criticized others for using cluster munitions in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Washington has voted in favor of UN General Assembly resolutions expressing outrage at the continued use of cluster munitions in Syria, most recently in December 2015. It has also supported UN Security Council resolutions and called on the OSCE to investigate and report cluster munitions use allegations. 

Today, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the weapons, has 100 states-parties and an additional 19 signatories. Twenty-one of NATO’s 28 members are states-parties to the treaty, including Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. So too are traditional U.S. military allies such as Australia and Japan. U.S.-led efforts to negotiate a new protocol on cluster munitions at the Convention on Conventional Weapons failed in 2011. This leaves the 2008 ban treaty as the sole international instrument dedicated to addressing the suffering caused by cluster munitions.

Yet Washington stubbornly continues to ignore the treaty. It abstained on a nonbinding UN General Assembly resolution on the convention in December. Unlike its allies and the majority of the world’s nations, it does not participate in any meetings associated with the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Recent Use by Saudi-led Coalition Highlights Need for New Thinking

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of countries began an air campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, seeking to return former president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to power in Sanaa. Almost immediately after the coalition began its airstrikes, reports emerged about the use of American-made cluster munitions, including in civilian areas in contravention of U.S. imposed end-use conditions. Many of the cluster munitions used in Yemen were supplied in the 20th century. 

However, the more modern CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons manufactured by Textron, the only cluster munitions that meet U.S. export criteria, where also discovered and reported by Human Rights Watch field researchers. They have documented multiple examples of submunitions or “skeet” from a BLU-108 canister failing to disperse or detonate. The failure of these last cluster munitions and their misuse should lead policymakers to permanently end U.S. transfers of cluster munitions. 

More broadly, the Saudi-led coalition’s actions and as well as those of the Houthi have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. Saudi actions, including use of cluster munitions, 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 due to Saudi behavior in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. 

On March 18, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, more widely addressed the conflict and 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.” Civil rights groups in late June called for Saudi Arabia to be removed from the UN Human Rights Council.

Deservedly, Washington’s arms sales to Riyadh are drawing more scrutiny. The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia, a country that is the leading developing world arms purchaser (according to a recent Congressional Research Service report), and one which increased its arms imports by 275 percent during 2011-2015 as compared to the previous five years (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute-SIPRI). 

In April, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed legislation that would require that U.S. sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia be subject to a certification process guaranteeing that the Saudis are targeting terrorists and not civilians in Yemen. 

In their review of a November 2015 notification of a potential $1.3 billion sale of advanced air-to-ground weapons to Riyadh, 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. Such pre-delivery notifications, which were written into the Arms Export Control Act in December 2014 with the Middle East in mind, have not been invoked previously. 

Peace activists demonstrated in front of Textron’s world headquarters in April for its role in supplying cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. (Photo: RiFuture.org/@SteveAhlquist)In March 2015, the U.S. wing of the Cluster Munition Coalition requested that President Obama review the 2008 policy, including the exception allowing for cluster munitions that may result in less than one percent unexploded ordnance, and commit the United States to accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

More recently, attention has been focused on the manufacturer itself, Textron, via public protests outside its facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island denouncing its production of cluster munitions after reports of civilian harm from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s use of these weapons. American banks and financial institutions have also been listed in the “Hall of Shame” by the global Stop Explosive Investments campaign and its June 2016 report detailing institutions that fund companies producing cluster munitions.

Given how out of step U.S. policy on cluster munitions now stands, with the U.S. allowing export of weapons it no longer uses and which its allies condemn, now is the time to end transfers and more seriously consider accession to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. At the same time, the president and Congress can take steps to be much more circumspect in their arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, refusing to allow new supplies until the country shows more responsibility in its military activities to protect civilians and live up to international humanitarian and human rights law.

—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

ACA Welcomes U.S. Decision to Sign Arms Trade Treaty

Mock Scud-B missiles on display at the Korean War Museum in Seoul. (Source: AP Photos) By Daryl G. Kimball News reports published today citing senior U.S. officials indicate that the Obama administration will make the United States a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty , which was concluded in negotiations earlier this year and approved by the UN General Assembly in April and opened for signature in June. The Arms Control Association--along with dozens of major U.S. human rights, religious, international development, and arms control groups--welcome U.S. signature of the treaty. The Barack...

U.S. Signature Needed to Advance Global Arms Trade Treaty

By Daryl G. Kimball On Monday June 3, leaders from dozens of states will gather at the United Nations in New York to sign the new Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT will—for the first time— establish common international standards that must be met before states authorize transfers of conventional weapons or export ammunition and weapons parts and components. Over time, the ATT can help tip the scales in favor human rights and human security when states consider arms transfers. As Secretary of State John Kerry said April 2: "It will help reduce the risk that international transfers of...


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