Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

End the arms sales, end the suffering

Posted by
arm sales destroy homes in yemen A picture of a home destroyed by airstrikes in Sana’a last month. Photo: Bassam Al-Thulaya/Oxfam Yemen

The votes in Congress are there to stop the US from selling weapons that fuel the war in Yemen. But will our leaders follow through?

President Trump recently declared an “emergency” to bypass Congress and expedite billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It’s the kind of move that only entrenches the US further as a key enabler of the war in Yemen.

Following years of unconditional support for the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition, our Congressional leaders must now take bold, comprehensive action that will have an immediate and positive impact for those most in need.

They must suspend the transfer of weapons for the Yemen war in the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The US is fueling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis

The Trump administration could not make its priorities more clear: pick friends and sell them weapons, as many as possible, no matter the consequences for people who will suffer the fallout.

The real emergency is the millions of Yemenis who are still suffering from hunger and a broken economy. Over four years of war have left too many families struggling to survive. Disease continues to spread rapidly, with the world’s largest recorded cholera outbreak devastating families throughout the country.

Now the conflict is at a critical juncture. Peace negotiations are as fragile as ever. Oxfam and other humanitarian organizations are facing huge obstacles to deliver life-saving aid that is desperately needed in hard-to-reach communities. Powerful states must demand a political agreement for the millions of Yemenis trapped in the conflict.

The kind of arms ban that will matter

A bipartisan group of Senators has introduced legislation to block President Trump’s recently announced arms sales, but it faces a likely presidential veto. Even if it could overcome a veto, it will not stop the billions of dollars worth of bombs, tanks, and other military equipment that Congress approved in past years and which are already scheduled for delivery. In short, while standing up to President Trump’s recently announced arms sales will call needed attention to the issue here in the US, it won’t convince anyone fighting in Yemen to pursue peace with any greater urgency.

The most powerful way for Congress to stand up for Yemen is to simply suspend the transfer of weapons to Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition countries in the upcoming NDAA, a law that Congress passes each year to outline the budget and expenditures of the US Department of Defense.

To be precise, the arms sale suspension in the NDAA should include the following elements:

  • It should be long enough to matter (ideally two years);
  • It should be unconditional and without any presidential waiver with respect to aerial bombs, which have been consistently used in violation of the law of war;
  • If other weapons (other than aerial bombs) are conditioned, they should be conditioned on progress toward a political settlement and support for the economy and aid delivery;
  • It should apply to all member countries in the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition; and
  • It should apply to all transfers of arms, even those already licensed.

This approach actually enjoys broad support. The Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, introduced by senior Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, includes an arms transfer suspension with almost all of these elements (it applies only to Saudi Arabia, not other members of the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition).

Congress is poised to act—if our leaders are focused and brave

It’s likely that majorities would vote for a strong arms sale ban in both the House and Senate—but Congressional leaders may not give them the chance. Instead, rather than take on the arms industry and President Trump, they may try to include weaker arms transfer language that will be easy for the Trump administration and the parties fighting in Yemen to ignore.

In the Senate, Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-ID) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-NE) have indicated they oppose blocking the Trump administration’s arms sales and would prefer a softer touch to Yemen. In the House, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-TX) are working on Yemen-related legislation that they may propose adding to the NDAA, but it remains to be seen whether they will support strong action. The support of Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) will be critical for a strong suspension to move forward.

Ironically, the House’s Democratic leaders, who vocally championed the Yemen War Powers Resolution that President Trump vetoed this Spring, have not yet stated their support for a strict approach to arms transfers. But it’s worth remembering that many of those same leaders only committed to the War Powers Resolution following substantial public demand.

An unconditional ban on bomb transfers—the kinds of weapons that are most likely to be put to use to destroy schools, hospitals, and family homes—will only become law if House and Senate leaders make it a top priority in the NDAA. But in full view of the Trump administration’s morally bankrupt Yemen policy—and following Democratic promises to right that wrong—we cannot demand anything less.