“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Jeff Abramson

Proposed Change to U.S. Weapons Export Rules Is Bad Policy



(WASHINGTON, DC)—Media reports indicate that the Trump administration has taken the decision to move forward with rules that could expedite how certain firearms and military-style weapons are sold internationally. Under the new rules, nonautomatic and semi-automatic firearms, their ammunition, and certain other weapons currently controlled under the State Department-led U.S. Munitions List would move to the Commerce Department's Commerce Control List (CCL).

Under the new rules, Congress would lose its ability to provide oversight on these sales. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act would prohibit the changes, but the NDAA has stalled in Congress. Moving forward would appear to override a hold that Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) put on the changes in February.


"We need to maintain tight export controls on the types of military-style weapons that are often misused to commit human rights abuses and that perpetuate violent conflicts that hurt vulnerable civilian populations. The Trump administration’s plan to remove military-style weapons from the State Department’s review and Congressional notification processes is bad policy.
        The proposed change in policy makes it easier to sell U.S. weapons abroad and might help the bottom line of a few gun makers, but it threatens to undermine long-term global security and decades of more responsible U.S. arms transfer policy."
     – Jeff Abramson, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association



Under new rules from the Trump administration, Congress would lose its ability to provide oversight on how certain firearms and military-style weapons are sold internationally.

Explosive Weapons Declaration Gains Momentum

November 2019
By Jeff Abramson

International efforts to create a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas reached a turning point in October. After more than 130 countries attended the Vienna Conference on Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare on Oct. 1–2, a process is now underway aiming to draft a declaration to be presented next year
in Dublin.

Humanity & Inclusion, an international nongovernmental organization, unveiled this Monument to the Unnamed Civilian on Sept. 26 in Paris to highlight civilian casualties of global conflicts. (Photo: Humanity and Inclusion)In recent years, a growing number of civil society groups and states have raised concerns about the harm caused by the use of weapons with wide-area effects in cities, both in terms of civilians immediately affected and the destruction of infrastructure that can leave populations vulnerable for months and years following conflict. A recent UN report cited data compiled by Action on Armed Violence from English-language media sources that found 20,384 civilians were killed and injured in 2018 by explosive weapons in populated areas.

In a Sept. 18 joint appeal supporting the development of a declaration, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer said, “Parties to conflict should recognize that they cannot fight in populated areas in the way they would in open battlefields. They must recognize that using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in cities, towns, and refugee camps places civilians at high risk of indiscriminate harm.”

The scope and details of a declaration, however, are still to be determined. Among the issues to be worked out in a declaration is how to discourage weapons use in populated areas, with the concept of “avoidance” being just one option. How the declaration might incorporate principles of international humanitarian law also must be resolved.

The United States, which actively participated in the conference, presented a two-page paper outlining its policies and recent reports on civilian casualties. Afterward, Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, argued against the negotiation of a joint declaration.

On Oct. 23 at the UN General Assembly First Committee, Wood said that “an effort to ban or stigmatize the use of explosive weapons is impractical and counterproductive because it could hamper efforts to protect civilians from bad actors like ISIS or encourage bad actors to use human shields and to hide in urban areas.”

Germany, which co-hosted a number of relevant international conversations on the issue in 2017 and 2018, said at the Vienna conference that “[s]trictly abiding by the rules and principles of [international humanitarian law] would provide effective protection of civilians.” The German statement added, “a declaration should focus on mitigating the various forms of harm through good practices that are designed to improve and enhance compliance” with international humanitarian law.

Wrangling over whether new agreements are needed has also animated the ongoing discussion on lethal autonomous weapons systems and, more broadly, efforts within the humanitarian disarmament framework. That approach, which also undergirds the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Mine Ban Treaty, and Convention on Cluster Munitions, places an emphasis on human security and the humanitarian consequences of weapons use.

According to the International Network on Explosive Weapons, the civil society coalition championing the effort, more than 80 countries have indicated support for a multilateral declaration.

In October, Ireland delivered a joint statement on explosive weapons on behalf of 71 countries at the First Committee. A similar declaration on behalf of 50 countries was delivered in 2018.

The next step in the process is set to occur Nov. 18 in Geneva when Ireland convenes the first in a series of meetings aimed at developing declaration text. The notional calendar aims for a conference in Dublin by the summer of 2020 where the text could be finalized or presented.

An international effort aims to draft a declaration before a 2020 meeting in Dublin.

Cluster Munitions Treaty Nears 10-Year Mark

October 2019
By Jeff Abramson

States-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions for the first time in September addressed requests to extend treaty-mandated deadlines as they prepare for next year’s review conference.

Components of a cluster munition are displayed at a UN peacekeeper camp in 2007. The cluster munitions treaty will hold its second review conference in 2020, 10 years after its entry into force. (Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images)At the ninth meeting of states-parties, held Sept. 2–4 at the United Nations in Geneva and chaired by Aliyar Lebbe Abdul Azeez of Sri Lanka, delegates welcomed Gambia and the Philippines as the newest states-parties. There are 107 states-parties and 14 signatories. Twenty nonsignatories also attended as observers, but not the United States, which has consistently chosen not to participate. (See ACT, October 2018.)

The treaty, which entered into force in 2010, bans the use, production, and stockpiling of cluster munitions, the weapons that deliver smaller submunitions that often fail to explode as intended, at times detonating years later. The majority of NATO members, as well as countries in the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, have joined the treaty. But China, Russia, the United States, and many states in the Middle East and North Africa have yet to do so. The convention calls for states-parties to destroy any stockpiles they have within eight years and clear contaminated land under their jurisdiction or control within 10 years.

During the meeting, states congratulated Botswana and Switzerland for completing destruction of their stockpiles ahead of their deadline for doing so and granted Bulgaria its first extension to this requirement. Research published by the independent Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor program before the meeting found that 99 percent of stocks declared by states-parties had already been destroyed, a collective total of nearly 1.5 million cluster munitions and more than 178 million submunitions. The report noted, however, that Guinea-Bissau, which had never filed a report indicating the size of its stockpile, failed to complete destruction by May 2019 and was in violation of the convention.

The report also noted that there were no reports or allegations of use of cluster munitions by any state-party since the treaty was adopted, but continued to find that the weapons were being used in Syria, although not as frequently as in recent years. While noting challenges in access and data disaggregation, the report also found a decline in casualties in the country, identifying 80 people killed or injured during cluster munitions strikes or by explosive remnants in 2018, down from 187 in 2017. The conflict in Syria has resulted in 3,343 of the 4,128 cluster munitions casualties recorded by the group from 2009 to 2018.

As in prior years, states-parties adopted a final report that “condemned any use by any actor” of cluster munitions. A proposal by New Zealand to specifically mention the use of cluster munitions in Syria was withdrawn after a small number of states indicated that they could not accept naming individual countries. That topic may be revisited next year at the treaty’s second review conference, to be held in November in Switzerland. At the first review conference held in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 2015, a declaration was adopted in which seven countries were specifically named.

None of the roughly two dozen countries still contaminated with cluster munitions completed clearance in 2018, but a separate report published by the Mine Action Review found that at least 128 square kilometers of cluster munitions-contaminated land was cleared in 2018, the highest annual total recorded. At the meeting, Laos, one of the world's most contaminated countries, was granted a five-year extension to its 10-year clearance obligation, with the recognition that it still faces significant challenges. Germany was also granted a five-year extension to clear a former military training area.

States-parties to the cluster munitions treaty marked milestones in destroying the lethal weapons that have taken thousands of lives.

Saudi Arms Sales Hit Hurdles in U.S., UK

July/August 2019
By Ethan Kessler and Jeff Abramson

U.S. and UK leaders received rare rebukes on the same day in June to their plans to sell conventional arms to Saudi Arabia, highlighting the challenges that Riyadh’s top two arms suppliers face in justifying their support for the kingdom and its allies.

Displaced Yemeni children carry water containers at a camp in the country's Hajjah province on June 23. The U.S. Senate voted June 20 to halt $8.1 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its partners in the conflict in Yemen. (Photo: Essa Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)The Republican-led U.S. Senate voted June 20 to block issuing licenses for $8.1 billion in arms sales to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that had been previously promised by the Trump administration. Senators approved two resolutions, each by a 53-45 vote with seven Republican senators in support, and 20 resolutions en bloc by a 51–45 vote with five Republican senators voting in favor. The resolutions came in response to the administration’s use of emergency powers to bypass the normal congressional notification process on 22 arms sales agreements. The House is expected to pass similar resolutions of disapproval.

The legislative action echoes earlier congressional efforts to curb U.S. military support for Saudi combat activity in Yemen as lawmakers have expressed concern about the humanitarian consequences of the war in Yemen and the Trump administration’s muted response to the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a commentator for The Washington Post. Congress approved a resolution in March under the War Powers Act to limit U.S. military action in Yemen, but it could not muster enough votes to overrule President Donald Trump’s veto of the resolution. Trump is expected to veto the June resolutions as well. (See ACT, June 2019.)

Aspects of the planned arms sales faced early opposition from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who placed a hold in 2018 on precision-guided munition sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, acting during a customary informal period that precedes formal notification. (See ACT, September 2018.) On May 24, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invoked a provision in the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA) to allow the administration to conclude the sales, citing the need to “deter Iranian aggression and build partner self-defense capacity.” The declaration allowed the president to bypass Menendez's hold and a formal 30-day review process, using authority under the AECA to expedite arms sales to foreign governments if the president declares that “an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.”

That emergency authority has been used three times in the past, according to R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 12. He argued the sales sent a “loud and clear message to Iran that we stand by our regional partners.”

At that hearing, Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) flatly declared that “there is no emergency,” saying that “a real emergency would require weapons that can be delivered immediately...not months or even years from now, as these do.” Cooper agreed that some of the sales would take place over a longer time frame, but said that others are “happening now, and actually, it’s happened prior to this hearing.” It appears that precision-guided munitions would be among the first weapons to be delivered.

Menendez also sought to send a message to the region. “If the Senate wants to show the world that even if you are an ally you cannot kill with impunity, this is the moment,” he said before the June 20 vote. He urged his colleagues to “stand up for the proposition that we won’t let our bombs fall upon innocent civilians and have the moral responsibility which will be a blemish on our history for years to come.”

With Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Menendez and five other senators first introduced the 22 joint resolutions of disapproval on June 5. Such resolutions have been rarely introduced, and their passage by both chambers is exceedingly rare. None has survived a presidential veto.

The pushback against arms sales to Saudi Arabia also extended to the United Kingdom, Riyadh's second-largest arms supplier. The UK Court of Appeal determined on June 20 that the government had failed to sufficiently scrutinize the Saudi-led coalition’s adherence to international humanitarian law, in violation of UK and EU law. In a press summary of their ruling, the judges said the UK government “made no concluded assessments” of the Saudi-led coalition’s record in Yemen, nor did it try to do so. Instead, the government had assessed Saudi “attitude” and engaged Riyadh in an attempt to avoid breaches of law and civilian casualties. The court found that approach insufficient and directed the government to reassess past decisions and change this practice moving forward. The court did not ban any arms transfers, but the UK government said June 25 that while it was reviewing the decision it would “not grant any new licenses for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt) which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

U.S. and UK leaders face domestic hurdles to their efforts to sell Saudi Arabia conventional weapons.

Trump War Powers Veto Survives Override


The U.S. Senate failed to override President Donald Trump’s April 16 veto of a congressional resolution to assert authority over direct U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. The 53–45 vote taken May 2 did not get the 67 votes needed to overcome Trump's veto of the War Powers Act resolution, which had passed the House of Representatives on April 4 and the Senate on March 13. (See ACT, May 2019.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) shown speaking in Texas in April, introduced the resolution restricting the U.S. military's involvement in the war in Yemen, later vetoed by President Donald Trump. (Photo: Sergio Flores/Getty Images)“The bad news today: we were unable today to override Trump’s veto regarding U.S. intervention in this horrific war in Yemen,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who introduced the Senate resolution, said following the vote. “The good news: for the first time in 45 years, Congress used the War Powers Act to reassert its constitutional responsibility over the use of armed forces.”

The override vote closely mirrored the Senate vote of 54–46 to approve the resolution in March, with the same five Republicans joining Democrats in supporting the resolution. Two senators did not vote on the veto override, one on each side of the issue.

Asserting authority over war on arms control issues was a congressional theme in May as many legislators raised flags about possible U.S. military intervention in Iran. “Congress has not authorized war with Iran, and the administration, if it were contemplating military action with Iran, must come to Congress to seek approval,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on May 15.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Trump War Powers Veto Survives Override


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