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Former IAEA Director-General
Jeff Abramson

U.S. Arms Sales Under Review

March 2021
By Jeff Abramson

In a significant reversal from the Trump administration, President Joe Biden said that the United States would end its support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” His announcement came a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that the administration was pausing recent arms sales in order to review them, putting in question the fate of billions of dollars of Trump-era deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Biden administration decision to end U.S. support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales, will affect the transfer of certain Raytheon Technologies munitions, including the proposed sale of 7,000 Paveway IV smart bombs for $478 million to Saudi Arabia. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)During his first major foreign policy address, delivered from the State Department on Feb. 4, Biden also pledged support for a ceasefire and revitalizing peace talks between warring factions in Yemen, including through the appointment a special envoy to the conflict. On Feb. 16, the State Department lifted the Jan. 19 designation of one of the major actors, the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization. The designation was one of the last acts by the Trump administration related to the conflict.

Writ large, the break with the previous administration's approach was expected based on pledges made by Biden to reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia. The administration has been short on specifics about the scope of weapons halted and duration of the review, but National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Feb. 4 that they did include precision-guided munitions sales to Riyadh that the Trump administration notified to Congress in late December. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Precision-guided munitions have been particularly controversial in recent years, with President Donald Trump vetoing joint resolutions from Congress to block their sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.)

On Jan. 15, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) introduced a joint resolution of disapproval to block the precision-guided munitions sales. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) had introduced a similar resolution Jan. 1. Although the 30-day initial review period had passed before the administration could move forward, such resolutions if they are approved by the House and Senate are binding if the administration does not move ahead with concluding letters of offer and acceptance. At present, there are no indications that Congress is likely to take up such resolutions, especially given Biden's indication he was stopping the sales.

But Biden indicated on Feb. 4 that the United States would continue to support Saudi Arabia “to defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity,” pointing to threats from “Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.” Exactly what this would mean in terms of arms transfers is not clear, leading to questions of how to define “relevant” arms sales that Biden promised to stop. Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), have called for stopping all arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

On Feb. 11, more than 75 civil society organizations and experts issued a letter detailing $36.5 billion in arms sales and services to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they believe should be considered relevant to "offensive operations" and permanently halted.

The Biden administration is also reviewing major arms sales to the UAE that were highly controversial. Sullivan said on Feb. 4 that the administration had spoken with senior UAE officials about the review and was “pursuing a policy of ‘no surprises’ when it comes to these types of actions so they understand that this is happening and they understand our reasoning and rationale for it.”

In December, the Senate narrowly failed to pass resolutions of disapproval on portions of a $23 billion package for which the Trump administration notified Congress a month earlier. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) On the day of Biden's inauguration, reports emerged that the Trump administration had concluded agreements with Abu Dhabi for F-35s and armed drones, possibly just an hour before Biden was sworn into office.

In November, Trump notified Congress of potential sales of up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones valued at $3 billion, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles valued at $490 million.

The Biden administration has not entirely stopped arms sales during the review. By the end of February, the administration had notified Congress of more than $500 million combined in potential arms sales to Chile, Egypt, Finland, Jordan, and NATO members.

Biden’s actions have taken place as international concern about arms sales to states involved in the war in Yemen is growing. In January, Italy permanently revoked existing licenses to export more than 12,000 bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, making permanent a suspension that had been announced in 2019, while continuing to deny any new licenses.

On Feb. 11, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that welcomed the U.S. actions and reiterated its call “for an EU-wide ban on the export, sale, update and maintenance of any form of security equipment to members of the coalition, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, given the serious breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law committed in Yemen.”

President Biden announced an end to support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

UAE Arms Sales Survive Senate Vote

January/February 2021
By Alexander Bertschi Wrigley and Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration's controversial proposal to sell more than $23 billion of arms and related services to the United Arab Emirates moved ahead after two bipartisan joint resolutions of disapproval fell short of a majority in Senate votes in December. The next step in the process is to negotiate contracts between Washington and Abu Dhabi, a task that will likely conclude with the incoming Biden administration, which has not indicated a stance on the sales.

A technician examines an MQ-9 Reaper drone at an Afghan air base in 2014. Trump administration plans to sell Reapers to the United Arab Emirates were not stopped by Congress, but still face an uncertain future. (Photo: Evelyn Chavez/U.S. Air Force)The sale includes up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones valued at $3 billion, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles valued at $490 million. (See ACT, December 2020.) Although resolutions of disapproval were introduced on all these weapons, votes were taken only on blocking the F-35s and armed drones, garnering yes-no votes of 47–49 and 46–50, respectively.

The votes fell largely along party lines. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) joined all but one of the Republican senators in voting against both joint resolutions of disapproval. Newly elected Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) also voted against the resolution on the proposed sale of armed drones. All other Democrats present voted in favor of both resolutions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the only Republican to vote in favor of the resolutions, which he co-sponsored.

The votes came just days before the end of a 30-day window during which Congress could pass joint resolutions to prevent the administration from moving toward formally concluding the sales by negotiating a letter of offer and acceptance. In theory, Congress could still pass such resolutions until the letter is concluded, which often takes months or years to negotiate, but the House did not take up its versions of the resolutions.

As of Jan. 9, the U.S. State Department was continuing to work on the letter, according to R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. With time running out on the Trump administration, however, the future of the arms transfers is uncertain, as there has been no clear indication of how the incoming administration will approach the sale. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was the only Democratic senator not present for the vote.

In the last weeks of December, the Trump administration also notified Congress of additional major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which have been highly controversial during his presidential term. (See ACT, September 2019.) The 30-day congressional review period on those potential sales will not end until after President Joe Biden's inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20, leaving it to the incoming administration to decide whether to issue licenses or conclude a letter. The proposed sales include 7,500 precision-guided, air-to-ground munitions valued at up to $478 million, and 3,000 small-diameter bombs for $290 million.

Biden has already noted his desire to rethink the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, stating in October that, “under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”

Although the UAE has not been as visible an actor in Yemen to the U.S. public, Abu Dhabi has deployed ground and air forces to Yemen over the past six years. It has scaled back involvement of its own personnel, but continues to work through proxies in the country.

Concerns regarding the arms sales centered on their potential impact on Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region and Iranian behavior, as well as the UAE’s role in continuing wars in Yemen and Libya, with many human rights and arms control groups joining in opposing the deal.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the resolutions, raised the concern that the Trump administration was expediting the sales and sidelining Congress on what would be one of the largest arms packages ever sold by the United States, saying shortly after the vote that “rushing through massive sales of Reaper drones and our most advanced fighter jets to the Middle East just makes defense companies richer and international security poorer.” He added, “I am eager to work with the incoming administration to take a closer look at each of these sales before any transfers are completed.”

Congress rejected efforts to curtail U.S. arms transfers to the United Arab Emirates, but the future of the deal is uncertain with the incoming Biden administration.

Nations Laud Landmine Removal

December 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Roughly half of the Mine Ban Treaty states-parties that have been contaminated at some point by landmines are now landmine-free, according to announcements made at the treaty’s Nov. 16–20 annual meeting. At the treaty’s 2019 review conference, members set the global goal of completing landmine clearance by 2025 in the 63 states-parties that have at some time declared that landmines were deployed on their soil. Participants celebrated announcements from Chile and the United Kingdom (for the Falkland Islands), the latest to announce that they had completed clearance of all known landmine contamination

A Sri Lankan mine clearance crew demonstrates its techniques in 2018. About half of the states-parties with landmines deployed at one time on their territory have successfully completed their removal. (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)Complying with pandemic limits prohibiting meetings of more than 50 people in Geneva, parties to the 164-nation treaty met virtually to continue their efforts to rid the world of antipersonnel landmines. Nearly 500 participants registered for the meeting, including government representatives from 88 states-parties and 11 states not party to the treaty.

Under the treaty, countries have 10 years to clear known antipersonnel mine fields, but can seek extensions, seven of which were granted at this year’s meeting and next steps were agreed for two countries that earlier declared completion but had since discovered additional contamination. Eritrea, however, failed to request an extension to its current deadline of Dec. 31, meaning it will soon be in noncompliance with the treaty.

While marking progress broadly on treaty goals, for the fifth year in a row the annual Landmine Monitor report recorded a high number of annual casualties caused by landmines and other explosive remnants of war. In 2019, the last year for which comprehensive data is available, there were at least 5,554 casualties recorded, 80 percent of whom were civilians where such status was known.

As with other treaty processes this year, transparency reporting rates fell, partly due to countries prioritizing pandemic needs. (See ACT, September 2020.) According to the Landmine Monitor, just 46 percent of states parties had submitted their annual reports by mid-October.

Having the meeting occur and take on key business, however, was seen as a success. Meetings of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that were scheduled for earlier in the month were delayed, again postponing discussion of lethal autonomous weapons systems, or “killer robots.” The second review conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions that was to take place in Lausanne, Switzerland, from Nov. 23–27 instead met for three days virtually Nov. 25–27 and will continue Feb. 4–5 next year.

The United States continued to attend the Mine Ban Treaty annual meeting as an observer, as it has done each year since 2009, despite announcing in January a new policy that ended its goal of one day joining the treaty. (See ACT, March 2020.) On the first day of the meeting, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) issued a press release in Washington encouraging the “incoming Biden-Harris administration …[to reinstate] the policy that was in place at the end of the Obama-Biden administration, which prohibits the use of anti-personnel mines except on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, it should direct the Pentagon to modify its strategies and tactics to eliminate the use of anti-personnel mines within three years so the United States can join the treaty no later than Sept. 26, 2023.”

During the annual meeting, the European Union similarly called “upon the United States to re-examine its decision to re-authorize the use of anti-personnel mines by U.S. military forces outside of the Korean Peninsula.”

As it has been for years, the United States is the largest global donor to landmine clearance, victim assistance, and related efforts—more commonly known as mine action. According to the Landmine Monitor, the United States provided $177.4 million for mine action in 2019, 32 percent of all such international support.

Asked about the rationale for U.S. participation, a State Department spokesperson wrote to Arms Control Today on Nov. 20, “We participate in order to demonstrate solidarity with all those committed to eliminating, through concrete Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA), the risks that landmines pose to civilians; highlight U.S. efforts and leadership in HMA; and coordinate with other states, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations regarding global HMA activities.”

The annual meeting of the Mine Ban Treaty marked further progress in eradicating landmines.

Process Changes Offered as Arms Sales Rise

November 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Democratic U.S. lawmakers are considering new measures to increase congressional oversight of U.S. arms exports, notifications of which are reaching record highs in 2020. So far this year, the State Department has formally sent to Congress more than $100 billion in potential arms sales via the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program to 30 countries plus Taiwan. This total is easily the highest of the Trump administration, and the second highest over more than the past two decades.

A U.S. F-35 aircraft takes off in Nevada in May. A sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates is the most controversial of record high levels of potential U.S. weapons exports.  (Photo: Bryan Guthrie/U.S. Air Force)Many additional billions in arms sales also appear to be close to formal notification, which starts a clock during which both chambers of Congress can pass resolutions of disapproval to bar sales agreements. Last year, the Trump administration bypassed the notification clock, leading to multiple efforts from lawmakers to reassert congressional authority into the process, which the president ultimately vetoed. The legislators were particularly concerned over planned weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The most controversial of the as-yet-unofficial deals again involves Abu Dhabi, consisting of an F-35 sale worth billions of dollars. On Oct. 20, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would require presidential certifications that Israel’s qualitative military edge would not be threatened before F-35s could be sold to other countries in the Middle East. Earlier in the month, Menendez and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent 16 questions to the administration asking about national security concerns regarding such sales.

Some analysts have speculated that the proposed sale is a benefit to the UAE for its signature of the Abraham Accords in September to normalize relations with Israel. Despite official denials of such a link, the senators wrote that “the administration’s attempt to move at breakneck speed so close to this announcement would give the appearance that it was.” Shortly after the accords were announced, rumors also circulated of many additional sales for countries in the Middle East, with media speculating on new deals for Israel and Qatar.

Fighter aircraft sales account for the greatest share of official export notifications this year, with the long-anticipated potential sale of more than 100 F-35s to Japan, valued at more than $23 billion, the single-highest proposed transfer. Sales of advanced aircraft to Finland and Switzerland added another roughly $40 billion to the 2020 FMS annual total. Those notifications, made as part of international competitive bids, included two separate packages for each country, only one of which will be accepted, if at all, by Helsinki and Bern.

In April, separate packages valued at $1.5 billion and $450 million were presented to Congress as part of a competition to provide attack helicopters to the Philippines. On June 10, 19 members of Congress, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing human rights concerns about arms sales to the Philippines and other countries, including Egypt, Hungary, India, and the UAE. (See ACT, June 2020.)

In February, Omar introduced what is one of a growing number of legislative proposals that would change how the United States factors human rights into arms trade decisions. Her bill titled “Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act” would establish human rights and international humanitarian law-based triggers, the violation of which lead to prohibitions on arms sales.

In September, Menendez with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced a bill titled “Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports (SAFEGUARD) Act of 2020,” which would elevate human rights considerations in arms trade. It would require that certain weapons be sold under the FMS program, rather than the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) program that generally has less public transparency and accounts for a growing share of U.S. arms sales. It would also remove minimum dollar-value thresholds on congressional notifications to certain countries.



Many of these proposed changes would address issues recently raised by the State Department Office of Inspector General. In an August report examining last year’s emergency arms sales, the office found many of the weapons were being sold via the DCS program and that more than $11.2 billion in approved transfers between January 2017 and late 2019 were below the threshold for congressional notification. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Also in September, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a bill titled “Values in Arms Export Act of 2020,” which would make human rights and international humanitarian law requirements more explicit in arms agreements, create prohibitions based on violations and list Saudi Arabia and the UAE as countries of concerns, establish an independent oversight board, and make it easier for Congress to raise resolutions of disapproval.

Another approach, thus far primarily discussed publicly among the policy community, is to “flip the script” so that Congress must proactively approve select arms sales. The concept, based in part on legislation proposed in 1986 by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), would mark a major shift because Congress would no longer need to have a veto-proof majority to block a sale.


Record-high U.S. arms export plans are spurring Democrats to boost congressional oversight.

ATT Takes On Arms Diversion

September 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Members of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) focused on preventing the diversion of conventional weapons to unauthorized uses and users as they conducted the treaty's sixth annual conference Aug. 17–21. While primarily making procedural decisions and continuing to avoid discussion of controversial arms transfers, conference participants formalized a mechanism for sharing confidential information that drew criticism from civil society for its potential to exclude stakeholders.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross speaks in China in 2018. In a statement to the Arms Trade Treaty's sixth annual conference in August, Maurer questioned the arms trade practices of many states. (Photo: Thomas Peter/pool/Getty Images)Concern over the coronavirus pandemic spurred conference organizers to conduct the meeting via written statements only, rather than using in-person or virtual platforms that allowed for real-time dialogue.

Argentina, which held the presidency of the conference, chose information sharing and transparency for preventing diversion as a special theme. To further that effort, conference president Federico Villegas presented a working paper with eight recommendations. The first was to continue work to establish a forum for states to discuss diversion cases. States-parties adopted the idea, deciding to establish the Diversion Information Exchange Forum (DIEF), with a first formal meeting to be organized by the next ATT president, and to review its usefulness during the eighth conference of states-parties.

The DIEF’s terms of reference, however, were only available to states-parties and signatories, and the mechanisms for others to participate were not fully clear. Numerous civil society leaders and groups expressed concern about the possible exclusion of civil society and other stakeholders from the process.

Those concerns were also echoed in findings from the ATT Monitor, the civil society-led initiative for monitoring treaty implementation led by the Control Arms campaign. That research found an increasing number of annual reports were being kept confidential, with 11 percent of reports in 2018 marked that way, as opposed to just 2 percent in 2015. The report also expressed concern about declines in on-time reporting, recognizing that the pandemic may have posed challenges for some states. It found that only 37 percent of states-parties met this year’s May 31 deadline for submitting reports on last year’s arms transfers, down from nearly 50 percent a year earlier.

As at past conferences, states-parties also generally avoided discussing controversial arms transfer decisions, such as those allowing arms to go to countries engaged in the civil war in Yemen or to Libya where a UN arms embargo was in place. In his written statement, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, drew attention to the need for change in state practices. “I remain gravely concerned by the apparent disparity between the treaty’s obligation to ensure respect for [international humanitarian law] in arms transfer decisions and the arms transfer practices of too many states. This calls into question the treaty’s credibility and effectiveness,” he said.

Despite the challenges of holding a meeting during the pandemic, Villegas cited many accomplishments in a video address closing the conference. He also noted that treaty membership has increased to 110 states-parties, with six countries—Afghanistan, China, the Maldives, Namibia, Niue, and Sao Tome and Principe—joining since the 2019 conference. He saw the addition of these countries, China in particular, as indications of the value of the treaty and as support for multilateralism.

China’s accession had been anticipated, making it the third of the top five global exporters of major conventional weapons to join the treaty, along with France and Germany, who were among the original 2013 signers and ratified the treaty in 2014. Neither the United States nor Russia, the world’s largest arms exporters, are states-parties.

China rebutted international concerns about its arms trade practices, declaring in its statement to the meeting that it “has always taken a prudent and responsible approach and exercised strict control on its arms export[s].” China also took the opportunity to criticize the United States, calling it “some country” that “by abusing arms trade as a political tool, flagrantly interferes in the internal affairs of other countries and pursues hegemony and bullying policy, which undermines international and regional peace and stability.” It also appeared to take a jab at U.S. President Donald Trump’s frequent blaming of China for the pandemic, saying that geopolitical tensions and other ills are “driven by the political ‘virus’ from some country.”

The United States, which in 2019 did not attend the annual conference and moved away from the treaty by stating it had no legal obligations arising from its 2013 signature, participated in the conference and other meetings this year. (See ACT, May 2019.) Although not issuing a formal statement at the conference, a State Department official told Arms Control Today on Aug. 20 that Washington was participating in 2020 meetings as an “observer in order to protect and promote U.S. interests in the international arms trade.” The official also said, “[W]e look forward to China complying with the obligations it has assumed by becoming a state-party and becoming a responsible participant in the international arms trade.”


The Arms Trade Treaty’s annual conference established a controversial closed forum to address the diversion of arms to unauthorized uses and users.


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