Politics of Poverty

7 ways to sell US arms abroad without losing your soul

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US arms sales Yemen A picture of a home destroyed by airstrikes in Sana’a, Yemen this past May. Photo: Bassam Al-Thulaya/Oxfam Yemen

America’s military might, technology, and diplomacy must support human rights and the rule of law around the world—not undermine them.

For more than four years and under the last two administrations, the US has sold the bombs most responsible for killing civilians and destroying critical infrastructure in Yemen, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. While opposition from Congress has mounted over time—culminating in the adoption of 22 resolutions of disapproval of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates earlier this year—President Trump vetoed all of them.

As of this writing, these weapons of war are on track for delivery to further inflame the conflict. Sales of rocket launchers and attack helicopters to the government of Bahrain as well as Super Tucano aircraft to the government of Nigeria have raised similar concerns, yet to much disappointment, the sales move forward.

For whoever is elected President in 2020, the sale of arms abroad is a moral dilemma requiring values-driven leadership and an opportunity to enhance respect for human rights across the globe. The US currently accounts for more than one-third of the total international arms export market. And over half of US arms sales in the past five years have gone to the Middle East, driving conflict and enabling human rights abuses.

Here are seven actions the next President can take to defend human rights and equality and take steps to ensure Dignity for All.

1. Reverse President Trump’s guardrail-free arms transfer policy and strengthen existing human rights protections

The president’s policy memorandum of April 18, 2018 makes clear that US arms sales should be viewed first and foremost as a cash cow—generating huge revenues for the American arms industry—and that American diplomats should be in the business of helping to sell them. Upholding human rights was relegated to marginal status.

The next President should not only reverse this memorandum, but make human rights a top consideration in conventional arms transfer policy. Specifically, arms sales should be barred when there is a substantial risk of being used in serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

2. Keep arms lobbyists and executives out of the administration

My colleagues warned about the concentration of power in large multinational corporations. Nowhere is this more true than in arms export policy.

As a recent report from the Center for International Policy has noted, the primary beneficiaries of the arms trade are the same corporations whose former officials now populate key national security positions in in the US government. Over the past decade, 90 percent of the $125 billion in US arms offers to Saudi Arabia involved one of four companies: Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics.

3. Strengthen end use monitoring

Under US law, the government must ensure that buyers use US weapons properly. In practice, this usually involves checking to see that weapons are stored and maintained in appropriate ways. Important prohibitions on using US-made weapons in human rights or international humanitarian law violations and transferring them to third parties are essentially not enforced.

In Yemen, US manufactured precision-guided munitions routinely destroy hospitals, schools, markets, roads, and other objects without a military purpose—all without any consequences. With Great Power, a must-read on this subject published by the Stimson Center and CIVIC, goes into greater detail.

4. Link training with arms sales

Another recommendation from With Great Power, this one is a no-brainer. Want to buy US weapons? Learn how to use them first—particularly in ways that comply with international humanitarian law.

5. Formalize approvals and dissent—giving a voice to USAID

Also a With Great Power recommendation (seriously, just read the whole report): every arms sale should be formally approved in writing by the officials in charge of the process. State and Defense Department officials with concerns about these sales—including those responsible for human rights—should be empowered to document their views in writing to Congress.

Additionally, the Administrator of USAID should be afforded this opportunity as well, particularly since the Foreign Assistance Act prohibits arms sales to countries that are impeding US-funded humanitarian assistance.

6. Give Congress a stronger hand

The US should only allow arms sales when those sales unquestionably support US interests and are in line with US values. Congress can block arms sales, but only with broad bipartisan majorities; even then a President who is determined to force through a sale can abuse emergency provisions of the Arms Export Control Act.

The next President should welcome greater Congressional involvement in arms export approvals by requiring an affirmative act of Congress to process most sales. That may sound onerous in a relatively dysfunctional Congress, but for the vast majority of sales that are uncontroversial, moving resolutions through Congress on voice votes or by unanimous consent would be quick—as quick as the many bills passed each year to rename post offices, police stations, and government office buildings.

7. Add the Arms Trade Treaty to the Treaty Priority List, the administration’s treaty ratification wish list

It’s no secret that the Senate is where multilateral treaties go to die. As of last year, the Trump administration hadn’t submitted a Treaty Priority List in the first place. But even if the Senate doesn’t approve the Arms Trade Treaty, the next President’s recommendation sends an important signal that the US is still committed to regulating the illicit arms trade and stopping weapons from being used in mass atrocities.

Learn more about other issues on Oxfam’s Dignity for All agenda this election season and join our 2020 effort.

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