The Arms Trade Treaty has the fervent support of the Obama administration but has run afoul of strong attacks from conservatives and the NRA.
WASHINGTON — For the first time in nearly two decades, President Barack Obama has updated U.S. policy guiding the sale of conventional arms and related military hardware to foreign governments.
Following on two years of quiet review, the surprise changes, which were unveiled last week, will now discourage the sale or aid of weaponry to countries accused of human rights violations, to countries with particularly unstable governments, or to areas where the sales could be used in genocides or other mass atrocities. Indeed, one of the update’s most prominent changes is the explicit requirement that U.S. officials be guided by a sense of “restraint.”
Yet at least in part, the reforms also appear to be meant to provide a policy framework to rationalize the Obama administration’s record spike in foreign arms sales – and to explain how such a surge can be carried out safely.
“Probably most prominent here is that one goal explicitly states that U.S. arms transfers don’t contribute to human rights violations – that’s a notable difference and an improvement,” Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a watchdog group here, told MintPress.
“But more than anything else, this document is a detailed and explicit description of where existing U.S. policy and practice are. The main adjustment here was to clarify existing practice and to be more explicit about those practices in the formal policy.”
The updates constitute the first changes to what’s known as the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy since 1995. The new reforms will try to balance two disparate goals: strengthening both the U.S. weapons trade and the safeguards that oversee that trade.
“Our policy continues to be guided by two fundamental tenets: to support transfers that meet the legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners in support of our national security and foreign policy interests; and to promote restraint, both by the United States and other suppliers, in transfers of weapon systems that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security,” the White House stated in a factsheet published last week, after Obama issued a new policy directive on the issue.
“The new policy … highlights the importance the United States places on key factors such as respect for human rights, international stability, homeland security, counter-terrorism, combating transnational organized crime, and supporting nonproliferation.”
A warlike goal
The U.S. is today the world’s largest weapons supplier by far. The new changes come as Washington’s arms sales have seen a massive upswing, a trend that has only risen more sharply under Obama. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, the U.S. sold some $69 billion in arms and related hardware to foreign countries – a new record even over previous record-busting years.
“The timing certainly makes it seem as though these changes are meant as rationale for the recent upsurge in arms sales,” William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project and the Center for International Policy, a think tank here, told MintPress.
“The administration may want to justify how we got here and show how it is possible to make this level of sales and still be careful who we’re selling to.”
U.S. arms sales have strengthened even as those by other countries have weakened in the aftermath of the global financial downturn. According to a 2012 study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, U.S. arms sales have seen “extraordinary increase,” to the point that they have “distort[ed] the current picture of the global arms trade market.
A large proportion of this growth in U.S. sales has come on the back of demand from developing countries, which constituted some 84 percent of sales in 2011. That year, over half of U.S. sales went to Saudi Arabia alone; the following year, billions of dollars worth of arms sales went to the new governments in Iraq and Libya.
The impact that the new policies would have on these sales is unclear. The Obama administration did halt the sale of four fighter jets to Egypt after the military there overthrew the democratically elected government, though that move was highly controversial. Currently pending legislation in the Senate would make it far easier for Washington to maintain financial or military aid to strategically important countries – with Egypt being the prime example.
“The new human rights framework is clearly more explicit than in the prior policy, so you could see sales to countries such as Bahrain receiving more scrutiny,” Hartung said.
“On the other hand, the policy also promises to do everything possible to promote arms exports. To my mind, a diplomat’s first priority shouldn’t be to promote arms deals – I’d worry that this could send the wrong signal to overseas personnel in terms of U.S. priorities.”
In parallel to the new policy changes, the Obama administration has been loosening export controls governing foreign arms transfers, which Hartung says is “contrary to the spirit” of the new directive. Under these changes, thousands of items will be moved from State Department oversight and transferred instead to the Commerce Department’s responsibility.
“The State Department list is fairly carefully scrutinized on human rights grounds … [that process] leaves a paper trail that makes it easier to try to detect any illegal diversion or even companies that violate these controls in some way,” Hartung said. “Moving those items under the Commerce Department will make it less certain that they will receive the same scrutiny on human rights grounds.”
A peaceable goal
In September, the U.S. formally signed a landmark new international agreement that, for the first time, would offer strong regulations for government-to-government arms transfers. The Arms Trade Treaty, the result of 10 years of negotiations under the U.N., has the fervent support of the Obama administration but has run afoul of strong attacks from conservatives and the U.S. gun lobby.
Although U.S. negotiators were successful in inserting language into the ATT specifying that its regulations would never overlap with national-level rights such as the Second Amendment, groups such as the National Rifle Association and others have made opposing the ATT into a key campaign. Given this opposition, the likelihood that the U.S. will be able to ratify the ATT in the near future is essentially zero.
Nonetheless, analysts say that elements of the new policy changes in Obama’s directive bear a direct resemblance to the ATT.
“There are strong similarities between the criteria in the Arms Transfer Policy and criteria and standards included in the ATT. In certain sections, they use the exact same phrases,” Kimball said.
“This reflects the 21st century international consensus against arm transfers that contribute to gross human rights violations. That changing view internationally – and, in the U.S., about the need to protect civilians from irresponsible arms transfers – is one main reason we have the ATT today.”
Kimball says the new policy changes could lead to a more responsible approach for the U.S., while also helping to influence other countries in how they implement these same criteria as parties to the ATT. The treaty, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in April, has thus far been signed by 116 countries but has been ratified by just nine. The ATT will enter into effect only after that latter number rises to 50.
Yet others have pointed out that the new U.S. guidance changes come with few specifics on implementation. The new policies come with two very different goals, after all – promoting more arms sales while strengthening safeguards on those sales – and it will now be up to the Obama administration to balance these aims.
“This is a policy that doesn’t make any one goal or criteria paramount – they’re supposed to look at all of these issues,” Kimball said.
“What that means is that from arms transfer to transfer, and from administration to administration, the way they balance out these different criteria will be a little different. Ultimately, Congress and the American people will have to judge based on the record going forward.