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"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Jeff Abramson

U.S. to Quit Arms Trade Treaty


May 2019
By Jeff Abramson and Greg Webb

The United States will drop out of the Arms Trade Treaty, the 2013 pact designed to regulate the international trade of conventional arms, President Donald Trump announced April 26.

Speaking to the National Rifle Association on April 26, President Donald Trump displays an order he signed during the speech for the United States to reject the Arms Trade Treaty. (Photo Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)“The United States will be revoking the effect of America’s signature from this badly misguided agreement,” Trump told a large audience at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Indianapolis. “The United Nations will soon receive a formal notice that America is rejecting this treaty.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the pact in 2013, but the United States has not ratified it. On stage in Indianapolis, Trump signed a message to the U.S. Senate asking it to discontinue the treaty’s ratification process.

International and U.S. treaty supporters decried Trump’s decision. The pact is the third major arms-related agreement from which the United States has withdrawn since he took office in January 2017.

Latvian Ambassador Janis Karklins, who will preside over the upcoming August 26-30 conference of the treaty's states parties in Geneva, said, “I hope that the U.S. administration will reconsider its decision in the future.”

“This is yet another myopic decision that jeopardizes U.S. security based on false premises and fearmongering,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was echoed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) who said, “It is abhorrent to use international diplomacy for blatant political pandering.”

Although popular today internationally, the treaty was not concluded easily. Measures to curb illegal and define responsible arms sales were discussed for decades, and a special treaty negotiating process failed in 2013 when Iran, North Korea, and Syria refused to join a consensus agreement. Instead, the pact was taken to the UN General Assembly days later and approved there against their “no” votes. It entered into force on Dec. 24, 2014. Today, the treaty has 101 states-parties and another 34 signatories that have not yet ratified.

The treaty is the first global accord to regulate a broad array of conventional weapons. It establishes common international standards that must be met before states authorize weapons transfers. The treaty generally seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade, reduce human suffering caused by illegal and irresponsible arms transfers, improve regional security and stability, and promote accountability and transparency by state-parties concerning transfers of conventional arms.

U.S. negotiators made clear during the treaty-making process that the pact would not threaten the right to bear arms afforded by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has no authority over national gun control laws.

Nevertheless, U.S. gun-rights organizations, led by the NRA, have alleged that the treaty would impose limits on U.S. domestic gun sales, and Trump repeated those claims in his NRA speech. “Under my administration, we will never surrender American sovereignty to anyone. We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedom.”

Such rhetoric was misplaced, according to Thomas Countryman, the lead U.S. negotiator of the treaty and now the chair of the Arms Control Association board. “The treaty, if ratified by the U.S. Senate, would not require the United States to change anything in its law or procedures,” he said. “The president's action today is yet another mistaken step that threatens to make the world less
safe rather than more secure.”

Trump to revoke U.S. signature of treaty regulating international trade of conventional weapons.

Trump Vetoes Yemen War Powers Restraint Effort


May 2019
By Jeff Abramson

President Donald Trump issued an April 16 veto of a congressional resolution to assert authority over direct U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. In a statement explaining the move, Trump said that U.S.-provided intelligence, logistics support, and in-flight refueling did not constitute direct engagement in hostilities and that the “resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.”

A Yemeni graffiti artist protests the continuing conflict in her country on April 25.  (Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)The expected veto followed the House of Representatives passage on April 4 of the War Powers Act resolution by a 247–175 vote, with 16 Republicans joining 231 Democrats. The resolution had been approved by the Senate by a 54–46 vote on March 13. (See ACT, April 2019.)

Supporters of the resolution called the measure a success despite the veto. The effort will “caution this and future administrations from going to war without first seeking authorization from Congress,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who introduced this year's House version of the resolution. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who introduced the Senate resolution, called April 22 for a vote to override the veto. He argued that U.S. involvement meets the War Powers Act definitions and that “Congress must now act to protect that constitutional responsibility [to declare war] by overriding the president’s veto.” Because the Congress-approved resolution originated in the Senate, a veto override must begin in that chamber and be approved by a two-thirds majority before moving to the House. The veto was just the second of the Trump presidency, both coming after the 2018 elections that resulted in a Democratic majority in the House.

Earlier in the month, Sanders said, “[T]he people of Yemen desperately need humanitarian help, not more bombs.”

 

A rare rebuke from Congress sees the presidential knife.

Congress Acts on War in Yemen


April 2019
By Jeff Abramson and Izabella Czejdo

Both chambers of the U.S. Congress recently passed resolutions to prohibit U.S. military involvement in the war in Yemen, a rebuke to the Trump administration's approach of supporting the Saudi-led coalition fighting there. Due to differences in the resolutions, the House needs to act again, after which a presidential veto is expected.

In 2018, 56 senators approved a War Powers Act resolution directing the president to remove U.S. forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen, unless directed at al Qaeda or associated groups. Steps taken by the Republican-controlled House prevented a vote on that chamber's version of the resolution. (See ACT, January/February 2019.) This year, the House took up a new resolution, approving it in a 248–177 vote on Feb. 28. Eighteen Republicans joined 230 Democrats in passing the resolution.

The Senate passed its War Powers Act resolution March 13 by a 54–46 vote, with seven Republicans joining all Democrats and independents in supporting the measure. Last-second changes to the House version to include language on anti-Semitism means that the House must reconsider the Senate version. The House is expected to vote on the Senate version soon, but the vote has not yet been scheduled.

President Donald Trump is expected to veto the resolution should it come to his desk. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered support March 15 for the Saudi-led coalition in the context of Iran. “The Trump administration fundamentally disagrees that curbing our assistance to the Saudi-led coalition” is the way to end the conflict, he told a press conference. “If you truly care about Yemeni lives, you’d support the Saudi-led effort to prevent Yemen from turning into a puppet state of the corrupt, brutish Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Support for the coalition has become increasingly controversial, especially after February reports that U.S. weapons supplied to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had been handed to al Qaeda-linked militias in Yemen. During a March debate, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) flagged these concerns, with Menendez saying, “In addition to the horrifying humanitarian crisis, we’ve also learned that U.S. coalition partners may be transferring U.S.-origin weapons to known—underline known—terrorist organizations.”

The Trump administration takes “all allegations of misuse of U.S.-origin defense articles very seriously,” a State Department official told Arms Control Today March 20. The official reiterated the U.S. position that there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict and that “we expect all recipients of U.S.-origin defense equipment to abide by their end-use obligations and not retransfer equipment without prior U.S. government authorization.”

Congress may act to restrict arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, impose sanctions, and stop air-to-air aircraft refueling for Saudi-led coalition aircraft, according to a bipartisan measure introduced by Menendez with six co-sponsors. Legislation in the House sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) seeks to prohibit further arms sales to Saudi Arabia and has 27 co-sponsors.

Congress set to rebuke Trump administration for its role in Yemen, but veto awaits.

“Proposed Small Arms Transfers: Big Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy”

Testimony by Jeff Abramson, Senior Fellow Arms Control Association The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations “Proposed Small Arms Transfers: Big Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy” March 26, 2019 Good morning, Chair Bera and Ranking Member Zeldin. It is a privilege to testify before this Committee and discuss concerns about how the United States exports some of the weapons most used in violence around the world and proposed changes that I fear could lead to greater human suffering. 1 To sum up my forthcoming remarks in just a few lines: The weapons and...

U.S. Firearms Export Changes Meet Challenges


March 2019
By Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration proposed changes in February to how the United States approves exports of certain firearms, a move that triggered quick responses from some congressional leaders who argued that the approach would be dangerous and reduce oversight. They warned that semiautomatic and military-style weapons, as well as 3D-printed "ghost" guns, would more easily end up in the hands of criminals, terrorists, and human rights abusers if the rules were to take effect.

Japanese police confiscated this batch of 3D printed guns in 2014. The Trump administration is seeking to modify how the United States oversees exports of some firearms, including plans for 3D printed weapons. (Photo: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)Under the proposed rules, semiautomatic and nonautomatic firearms and their ammunition are deemed to "no longer warrant control under the United States Munitions List (USML)," a State Department-administered list of weapons. Instead, they would be transferred to a list administered by the Commerce Department, the Commerce Control List, an indication of the administration's view that these are "essentially commercial items widely available in retail outlets and less sensitive military items."

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) sponsored legislation Feb. 12 that rejected the rationale for the change and would prohibit the transfer to Commerce Department oversight. The proposed new rules would “defy common sense,” Menendez said in a statement. He added, “Small arms and associated ammunition are uniquely lethal. They are easily spread and easily modified and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world.”

The Senate measure also focused on the danger of 3D gun printing, with Menendez saying, “Every terrorist and criminal that wants to hijack an airplane with Americans onboard will more easily be able to smuggle 3D-printed, virtually undetectable guns aboard.” Because online plans for 3D-printed guns currently controlled by the USML are deemed an export, a move to the Commerce Department would likely deregulate their control. The Commerce Department is not expected to impose licensing restrictions on what 3D print advocates are trying to make open-source information. An administration decision last year to allow the organization Defense Distributed to publish 3D plans online met an outcry and has been delayed in ongoing court cases.

On Feb. 26, Menendez sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placing a hold on the proposed rules change, but whether the administration will honor the hold remains to be seen. It could choose to publish the final rules this month, when the 30-day clock for congressional review that began Feb. 4 expires. Such changes typically then have a six-month implementation phase-in period.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) co-sponsored a measure with Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) on Feb. 9 that would also block the change. In his statement about the rules, Engel warned that Congress would lose its oversight role, which is needed "so we can step in and make sure these weapons aren’t sent to bad actors, including terrorists, drug cartels, human rights abusers or violent criminals."

In 2002, Congress amended notification requirements so it would be informed of potential commercial sales of firearms under USML Category I when they were valued at just $1 million, but no such notifications exist for items on the Commerce Control List.

Data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor indicates that the Trump administration requested Congress to approve at least $746 million in firearms sales to a total of 14 countries in 2018, more than two-thirds of which was for Saudi Arabia. The value of transfers that would be subject to the new rule is not clear as that data cannot be disaggregated from the automatic and other firearms that would remain on the USML.

The rules were considered during the Obama administration as part of a broader export control effort that transferred portions of the larger USML to Commerce Department control. Changes to firearms and ammunition in the first three USML categories were never formerly introduced, in part due to a different sensibility related to gun violence.

The Trump administration first introduced the rules for public comment in May 2018, garnering thousands of public responses. (See ACT, June 2018.)

These military-style weapons, although more tightly controlled in many other countries, have been sold domestically and used in many mass shootings, including at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Human rights and gun control groups have backed the legislative efforts to stop the change. Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign, stated on Feb. 8, "While the corporate gun lobby is no doubt thrilled to be able to take their products to a wider audience, we need to be taking steps to reduce gun violence at home, rather than exporting it.”

 

The Trump administration is trying to change bureaucratic oversight rules for U.S. exports of selected conventional weapons.

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