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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Conventional Arms Control and Trade

Cluster Munitions Ban Marks Progress


October 2018
By Jeff Abramson

Delegates of states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, meeting Sept. 3–5 in Geneva, once again condemned any use of the weapons and celebrated successes in the decade since the treaty opened for signature.

Human Rights Watch has said there is evidence that Sudan dropped cluster bombs on civilian areas of Southern Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains in February and March 2015. (Photo: Human Rights Watch)The annual meeting ended a half day early without controversy as states welcomed the March accession of Sri Lanka and Aug. 31 ratification by Namibia, which will become the 104th state-party when the treaty enters into force for it in February. Conference President Carlos Morales Dávila, Nicaragua’s deputy permanent representative to the UN and other international organizations in Geneva, also congratulated Croatia, Cuba, Slovenia, and Spain for reporting completion of the destruction of their cluster munition stockpiles.

Research published by the 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 1.4 million cluster munitions and more than 177 million submunitions. Under the treaty, states have eight years to destroy their cluster munitions. Thus far, no state has missed its deadline.

As it documented beginning in 2012, the program reported ongoing use of cluster munitions by the Syrian government. Fewer incidents were confirmed in 2018, however, likely a result of difficulty in obtaining information and a change in the Syrian civil war as governmental forces recaptured more territory. Fewer casualties from such munitions were cited, with 187 recorded in 2017 in Syria, down from 860 in 2016, although the report said the total was certainly higher “as available data does not capture all the casualties that occurred.”

The report also identified cluster munitions use in Yemen during the latter half of 2017 by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthi, with such use beginning in 2015. None of the countries involved in the use of cluster munitions in that conflict are parties to the treaty.

As in prior years, states-parties adopted a final report that “condemned any use by any actor” of cluster munitions.

In a video message, Izumi Nakamitsu, UN high representative for disarmament affairs, called the convention an example of “disarmament that saves lives.” She said that the treaty has “had a concrete impact on the ground,” lauding stockpile destruction efforts and progress on clearance of contaminated land. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, at least 93 square kilometers of contaminated land were cleared in 2017 and at least 153,000 submunitions destroyed, an increase of 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively, from 2016.

More than a dozen nonsignatories to the treaty attended the meeting, but the United States continued its approach of not attending. Although it is the world’s largest financial contributor to land clearance efforts, Washington insists that cluster munitions remain relevant military tools. In November 2017, the United States altered a policy that was to take effect at the end of this year barring the use of cluster munitions that result in a more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance rate. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

Next year’s meeting of states-parties is planned for Sept. 2–4 in Geneva, to be led by Aliyar Lebbe Abdul Azeez, Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN Office and other international organizations in Geneva. In 2020, Sabrina Dallafior Matter, the Swiss ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, will preside over the treaty’s second review conference.

Four more countries complete elimination, as states-parties increase to 104.

ATT Tackles Diversion, Not Controversy


October 2018
By Jeff Abramson

States-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) are working to improve implementation even as they continue to avoid controversial conversations about specific arms transfers.

Morning commuters and delegates arriving for the fourth conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), held in Tokyo, were met by campaigners holding “missing” posters illustrating real-life cases of weapons that have been diverted into the illicit trade. (Photo: Control Arms)During opening remarks Aug. 20 at the fourth conference of ATT states-parties in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono identified as “two imminent challenges” the universalization of the treaty and its effective implementation. In doing so, he welcomed the addition of five new treaty members since the 2017 conference of states-parties, bringing the total to 97 once the treaty takes effect in November for Brazil, the most recent to ratify.

The treaty establishes common standards for international trade in conventional weapons and seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade. Measures include required consideration of whether transferred arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, as well as reporting on national implementation measures and annual arms transfers.

To address implementation issues, a special focus was placed on weapons diversion. During the five-day meeting, treaty members endorsed a three-tier approach to sharing information and welcomed documents on relevant existing instruments and possible measures to prevent and address diversion.

Reporting remains a challenge. The Control Arms coalition’s ATT Monitor found that 73 percent of states-parties had met their obligations to submit an initial report on national implementation measures. As of June, 48 states had submitted separate, annual arms transfer reports out of 89 required to do so for a 54 percent reporting rate, a decline from the previous year’s 65 percent.

States agreed to continue a working group on transparency and reporting and endorsed an outreach strategy to improve compliance with reporting requirements.

As with previous annual conferences, states generally avoided discussion of controversial arms transfers, particularly ones to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (See ACT, October 2017.) Those countries are leading a coalition fighting the Houthi in Yemen that has been criticized for frequently striking civilians and exacerbating a humanitarian crisis. States that are still supplying arms to the Saudi-led coalition risk going down in history as being complicit in war crimes in Yemen, Amnesty International said in a Sept. 17 statement.

Next year’s conference of states-parties is planned for Geneva on Aug. 26–30 and will be led by Jānis Kārkliņš of Latvia.

A special focus was placed on weapons diversion.

Arms Flow Despite Yemen Deaths


U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo avoided a diplomatic clash with Saudi Arabia by certifying to Congress that the kingdom is taking “demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure” from its airstrikes in Yemen. In doing so, Pompeo overruled State Department specialists after he was warned that alienating Saudi leaders by failing to make the certification could jeopardize $2 billion in weapons sales, according to a Sept. 20 report in The Wall Street Journal.

The German government confirmed on Sept. 21 that it is proceeding with delivery to the Saudis of counterfire radar systems for artillery. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government deal early this year called for halting weapons sales to any side fighting in Yemen's civil war, although it reportedly excluded already approved exports. (See ACT, March 2018.)

Spain’s new center-left government reversed itself shortly after saying in early September that it had canceled the planned delivery of 400 laser-guided bombs purchased by Saudi Arabia in a 2015 deal under the former conservative government. Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said on Sept. 13 the government will honor the 2015 contract and noted that such so-called precision munitions can reduce dangers to civilians. Halting of the deal had raised concerns in Spain over the risk to a more lucrative contract, signed in July, for state-owned shipbuilder Navantia to supply warships to the Saudis, according to Reuters.

In a late August report, a panel of UN investigators reported that the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had taken actions that may amount to war crimes, including conducting airstrikes that have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians, torturing detainees, raping civilians, and using child soldiers as young as eight. The report also cited Houthi rebels as committing possible war crimes, including shelling civilians and blocking delivery of humanitarian aid.—TERRY ATLAS

 

Arms Flow Despite Yemen Deaths

Addressing the Risks of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Through the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

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For Immediate Release: September 7, 2018

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Michael Klare, senior visiting fellow, (202) 463-8270

The widespread deployment of highly autonomous weapons—systems capable of operating with minimal human oversight—is likely to transform the future battlefield, accelerating the pace of fighting and delegating many critical battle decisions to machines. Technologies now in development could endow machines with the capacity to search for, identify, and kill humans on the battlefield or to hunt for and destroy an adversary’s nuclear deterrent systems, possibly igniting a nuclear exchange.

We agree with a growing number of governmental and nongovernmental experts that the unregulated deployment of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) could lead to violations of the Law of War and international humanitarian law and increase the risk of uncontrolled escalation in a major-power crisis.

We call upon responsible states to promptly pursue multilateral negotiations on a legally-binding instrument to ensure meaningful human control over weapons of war and decisions to employ the lethal use of force.

For four years, signatory states to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)—a treaty signed in 1980 with the aim of eliminating munitions deemed excessively cruel or injurious—have sought to assess the potential dangers posed by autonomous weapons and to consider whether new measures were needed to control them. Most recently this investigative task was entrusted to a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), which most recently met Aug. 27-31 in Geneva.

A significant number of governments have concluded that the use of fully autonomous weapons can never be reconciled with international humanitarian law and have advocated the adoption of a legally binding ban on such munitions; others have called for a nonbinding measure incorporating some basic principles on LAWS, like the necessity for ultimate human control; while a small minority, including the world’s major weapons producers, Russia and the United States, argue against any new measures regulating LAWS.

At its most recent meeting, virtually every delegation at the GGE affirmed that humans should always retain ultimate control over weapons systems, but they failed to agree on a path forward other than to continue further expert-level discussions in 2019.

Given the rapid progress in autonomous weaponry research and development and given that many autonomous weapons systems are moving rapidly toward deployment, it is past time for responsible governments to act.

Current policies and practices are clearly insufficient to address the dangers posed by LAWS. The U.S. government’s guidelines, outlined in a 2012 Department of Defense directive, says such systems should allow for “appropriate levels of human judgment” over the use of lethal force, leaving open the question of what constitutes “appropriate.”

The Group of Governmental Experts, which began their deliberations in 2016, has had ample time to investigate the dangers posed by autonomous weapons. Although important technical issues regarding definitions relating to LAWS remain, we believe that the time for discussion is over and that the dangers of deploying lethal autonomous weapons have been sufficiently demonstrated to warrant the initiation of formal negotiations on meaningful control mechanisms.

The appropriate place for these to begin is at the next meeting of the CCW’s High Contracting Parties, set for Nov. 21-23 in Geneva.

We fully recognize that there are differences among member states on what sort of limits to place on lethal autonomous weapons, if at all. But as the U.S. has argued in another negotiating forum, the Conference on Disarmament (which also operates by consensus), negotiations do not assume any particular outcome but allow for careful consideration of competing proposals.

We therefore urge United States to act more responsibly and call upon all governments represented at the CCW to support the initiation of negotiations on autonomous weapons at their meeting in November and to help craft an outcome ensuring continued human control over weapons of war and the decision to employ lethal force.

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Technologies now in development could endow machines with the capacity to search for, identify, and kill humans on the battlefield or to hunt for and destroy an adversary’s nuclear deterrent systems, possibly igniting a nuclear exchange.

Trump Resists Arms Sales Restraint


September 2018
By Jeff Abramson

An unusual mix of issues from the bombing of a school bus full of children in Yemen to alarm about possible 3D printing of untraceable guns is fueling controversy over the Trump administration’s promotion of conventional arms sales and military support. Yet, the administration seems poised to resist opposition to its practices coming from Congress and elsewhere.

Yemeni children raise protest signs during a demonstration in the capital Sanaa on August 12, after an air strike by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led military coalition hit a school bus and reportedly killed more than 40 children in the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada. (Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)Even before the Aug. 9 bombing in Yemen using U.S.-supplied weapons killed more than 50 people, including more than 40 children, congressional leaders were seeking answers to their questions about the propriety of U.S. military support for the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that has frequently hit civilians and civilian infrastructure in its fight against the Houthi forces.

Following a string of congressional battles on arms sales and assistance (See ACT, April 2018.), Congress included a provision in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that requires the secretary of state to certify within 30 days that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are complying with U.S. laws on weapons use and “taking appropriate steps to avoid disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.”

But President Donald Trump indicated his belief that he may not be bound by the requirement. In his Aug. 13 signing statement on the authorization legislation, Trump explicitly listed the provision as one among many that “encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities.”

A separate action related to international arms regulation garnered widespread domestic opposition and drew a temporary restraining order from a U.S. district court judge in Washington state. In 2015 the State Department ordered an organization called Defense Distributed to remove online instructions for the 3D printing of firearms because such digital files created an export that is controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

Despite winning court challenges to its authority, the State Department settled the case on June 29, and it published a notification on July 27 that Defense Distributed would be exempt from licensing requirements.

During July, opposition to the settlement included a legal challenge to block the administration’s actions filed by 19 states and the District of Columbia. Judge Robert S. Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington granted a temporary restraining order July 31 that led Defense Distributed to take down its online publications and the State Department to remove the exemption. The Justice Department filed a brief Aug. 15 calling on the judge to lift the injunction, but on Aug. 27 he extended the order as a preliminary injunction.

A separate administration effort might result in the same deregulation of 3D firearm printing, but the results are not expected until next year. The public comment period closed July 9 on proposed changes to how semiautomatic and nonautomatic firearms and their ammunition are regulated. (See ACT, June 2018.) The transfer of such weapons from the State Department-controlled U.S. Munitions List to the Commerce Department-led Commerce Control List drew more than 6,000 comments, many of them negative.

Leading gun control and human rights organizations weighed in against the proposal, including Amnesty International USA, which wrote that the changes increase “the risk that irresponsible brokers of small arms and light weapons could evade regulation, and arms will be diverted to states or non-state actors with poor human rights records.”

The final rule is not expected until 2019, but the Commerce Department would not be expected to block online publication of 3D printing instructions under the circumstances of the Defense Distributed case. The Commerce Department would be expected to protect a commercial copyright, but Defense Distributed is actively working to publish material online rather than seeking such protection.

In addition to the provisions in the defense authorization law, members of Congress are taking other steps to circumscribe the administration’s actions involving sales of weapons for use in the Yemen war. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on June 28 he could not support the sale of precision-guided munition kits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, of which Congress officially has not been notified.

Menendez said he is “not confident” that the weapons sales will help drive the parties toward a political settlement. “Even worse, I am concerned that our policies are enabling perpetuation of a conflict that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” he wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced on Aug. 1 that he would place a hold on the nomination of R. Clarke Cooper to be assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs unless the administration changes its policy on 3D gun printing. Cooper would be in charge of the department’s Directorate for Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), the office that published the short-lived exemption for Defense Distributed.

Tina Kaidanow, the acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, broadly defended the administration’s approach at a public event Aug. 8. In describing the implementation plan for the Trump administration’s conventional arms transfer policy, she focused on the economic benefits of a more aggressive governmental push to sell arms.

Although Kaidanow mentioned that human rights and nonproliferation objectives remain a part of U.S. conventional arms transfer policy, the plan’s three main elements are directed at increasing arms exports. Those elements include proactively ensuring that “U.S. products can win in the competitive global market place,” organizing governmental action to support that, and producing “conducive environments…to foster the efficient operations of U.S. defense trade.”

“What this initiative makes clear,” she said, “is that, under this administration, there will be no more active advocate for U.S. sales than the U.S. government itself.”

Critics seek to thwart the Trump administration’s arms policies over issues such as U.S. weapons that are killing civilians in Yemen.

Small Arms Review Conference Sets Plan


Guns seized from criminals by the Brazilian armed forces are crushed June 20 at a military base in Rio de Janeiro. The weapons were part of a large cache that had been stored as evidence. (Photo: Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)The 143 states participating in the third review conference on the 2001 UN Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons adopted on June 30 a plan for implementing the international accord and its weapons tracking framework, known as the International Tracing Instrument.

The meeting’s outcome document set precedent by explicitly addressing ammunition, which a small minority of members, including the United States, had blocked in the past. Although the program of action and its outcome document are not legally binding, it is possible that the reference to ammunition may contribute to normalizing its inclusion in other multilateral work on small arms and light weapons control.—TRUSHAA CASTELINO

Small Arms Review Conference Sets Plan

GOP Takes Aim at Surveillance Treaty


July/August 2018
By Kingston Reif

Republicans on a key House committee are ratcheting up their campaign to cripple the Open Skies Treaty despite protests from the Pentagon and U.S. allies that such a move would benefit Russia.

An OC-135B Open Skies aircraft takes off from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.  (Photo: Josh Plueger)The House Armed Services Committee proposed in May to block the Air Force’s request to replace the aircraft that the United States uses to conduct treaty flights, including over Russia. But in a letter to Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that, despite Russian violations of the treaty, “it is in our nation’s best interest to remain a party” to the pact.

“In order to maximize U.S. benefits from the Treaty, the United States needs to recapitalize and modernize its sensors and aircraft,” Mattis added. “The 1960s-era U.S. Open Skies aircraft are ill-suited to extreme operating environments in Russia and experience regular, unplanned maintenance issues, often resulting in mission delays or cancellations.”

The Treaty on Open Skies, which entered into force in 2002 and has 34 states-parties, aims to increase confidence in and transparency of military activities, particularly in Europe, by allowing unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the entire territory of its participants for information-gathering purposes. The parties have equal yearly quotas of overflights and must make the information they acquire available to
all treaty parties.

The treaty permits up to 42 overflights of Russia by states-parties, of which 16 can be flown by the United States.

Washington for several years has raised numerous concerns about Russian compliance with the pact. The State Department’s annual compliance report released in April determined that Russia is violating the treaty by restricting observation flights over Kaliningrad, which is a sensitive Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, to no more than 500 km, and within a 10-kilometer corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In response, the United States has placed restrictions on some of Russia’s treaty flights.

Separate from the compliance concerns, treaty critics in Congress argue the Russia’s flights, which now employ more advanced sensors and cameras as allowed by the treaty, amount to spy missions.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee in March 2016 that he has “great concern about the quality of the [digital] imagery” for intelligence collection purposes and “would love to deny the Russians” that capability. (See ACT, March 2016.)

The Pentagon is in the process of transitioning to the more advanced digital sensors in its treaty flights over Russia. Even so, critics claim that commercial satellite imagery can provide higher-quality photos and videos than those taken on U.S. treaty flights.

In his May letter to Fischer, Mattis countered that the imagery produced on treaty flights “is verifiable and unclassified, which allows for its use in international or bilateral fora.” He noted that, in 2014, treaty imagery was “a key visual aid during U.S. engagement with allies and Russia regarding the military crisis in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, the two OC-135B aircraft that the United States uses for treaty flights are increasingly unreliable, resulting in mission delays and cancellations. In 2017 the United States completed only 64 percent of its scheduled Open Skies missions over Russia, according to Mattis.

The House-passed version of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act would have barred the Pentagon from acquiring an upgraded digital imaging system for treaty flights. The Senate version of the bill did not include such a provision.

The Trump administration strongly objected to the House proposal. In a statement of policy on the bill, the White House said the prohibition would “prevent the United States from keeping pace with Russian Open Skies aircraft sensor upgrades, fully implementing the Open Skies Treaty, and increasing the value of the treaty to United States national security.”

Following negotiations between the two chambers, the final version of the authorization act conditioned funding for the new cameras and sensors on the receipt of two certifications. (See ACT, December 2017.) The first certification requires the defense secretary to confirm that the new cameras and sensors “will provide superior digital imagery as compared to digital imagery” commercially available to the Defense Department. The second certification requires the president or secretary of state confirm that Washington has imposed costs on Russia for its violation of the treaty. Neither certification has been provided to Congress.

The House has taken an even more aggressive approach this year, turning its attention toward preventing the Pentagon from replacing the OC-135B aircraft. The chamber’s version of the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House in May, would eliminate the Pentagon’s $222 million request to buy new planes.

In addition, the bill would prevent the United States from participating in or implementing decisions made at the Open Skies Consultative Commission, the pact’s implementing body, to approve requests made by parties to the treaty to upgrade their digital sensor systems until several requirements are met.

These requirements include a certification that Russia has returned to compliance with the treaty and the submission of a report on the value of the treaty. Among the required elements of the report is “a plan, and its estimated comparative cost, to replace the treaty architecture with an increased sharing of overhead commercial imagery, consistent with United States national security, with covered state parties, excluding the Russian Federation.”

The Trump administration once again objected to the House proposal. In its statement of policy on the House bill, the White House said that “modern, capable, and cost-effective aircraft” are needed to replace the current unreliable OC-135Bs.

In contrast, the Senate version, which passed in June, would condition funding to upgrade the digital imaging system until the administration provides the certifications required by the fiscal year 2018 bill.

House and Senate leaders are hoping to reconcile differences in the bills and send a final version to the president by the end of July.

In the Senate, the fight for funding is being led by the two Republicans from Nebraska, who have a home-state interest. The OC-135Bs are based at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha.

Fischer told the Omaha World-Herald in May that “if we don’t have the planes to complete the mission, we’re not hurting the Russians.… We’re hurting ourselves.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) echoed similar sentiments in an interview with the Daily Beast. “While Russia has chosen not to comply with some provisions [of the treaty], they generally adhere to the rest,” he said. “We need them to return to full compliance. Defunding our own aircraft doesn’t hurt them, it only hurts us.”

Anthony Wier, a former State Department and Senate official who worked on Open Skies Treaty implementation issues, told Arms Control Today in a June 21 interview that the effort to hollow out the treaty is based on the theory that there are alternative ways to collect the imagery it provides. But Wier, who is currently at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, noted that the agreement provides the United States and its allies “with imagery we cannot get any other way” and that the flights strengthen ties between the United States and its allies and reassure non-NATO members on Russia’s periphery.

Undermining the treaty, he continued, would further alienate the European allies of the United States, who are seething in the wake of Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

“We stay in Open Skies not to do favors for the Russians or anybody else, but because being able to fly a camera low and slow over Russian territory many times a year is in America’s interest,” Wier said.


The original version of this article misstated the nature of the U.S. concern regarding Russia's restriction of Open Skies Treaty flights over Kaliningrad. 

Critics of the Open Skies Treaty seek to block the Pentagon’s request for funding to modernize U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and sensors.

Trump Favors Arms Industry in Effort to Loosen Export Controls

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Volume 10, Issue 6, June 7, 2018

The Trump administration is pushing to make sweeping changes in U.S. conventional arms export policies in order to sell more weapons, more quickly, and typically with less transparency and oversight. One reason given for these changes—advancing economic security—is simply faulty.

Worse still, the policies are dangerous, creating new risks that these weapons end up in the hands of terrorists and international criminals and further undermining the promotion of human rights norms that should be central to U.S. actions.

In mid-April, the president issued a new conventional arms transfer policy, giving the State Department 60 days to submit an implementation plan. In May, the administration also started a 45-day public comment period on regulatory changes that would transfer the control of assault rifles and other weapons of choice in armed violence to the Commerce Department.

If the administration is serious about claims that these changes make for responsible policy, it should add much greater transparency into the arms transfer and monitoring process. Congress, if it does not act to stop these new approaches, should make sure, at a minimum, that it maintains meaningful oversight to prevent abuses that undermine longstanding U.S. foreign policy objectives designed to avoid fueling conflicts around the world and propping up regimes that do not respect the basic human rights of their people.

Background

On April 19, Donald Trump issued a national security presidential memorandum replacing a January 2014 presidential policy directive that, like the 1995 iteration from the Clinton administration, included an unweighted list of criteria to guide decisions on U.S. conventional arms transfers.

Common to these policies are goals to improve the security of the United States and its allies, prevent proliferation, and support relevant multilateral agreements. With the backing of major arms producers, the Trump approach explicitly adds “economic security” as a factor in considering whether to approve arms exports. It promises that “the executive branch will advocate strongly” on behalf of U.S. companies and “maximize the ability” of U.S. industry “to grow and support allies and partners.”

Michael F. Miller, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, U.S. Department of State discusses new US conventional arms transfer policy and proposed changes to firearms exports at Forum on the Arms Trade conference in Washington DC on May 22. (Photo: Stimson Center)The memorandum retains many of the same provisions regarding human rights as the Obama-era conventional arms transfer policy, although consolidating their reference to a single section rather than reiterating them throughout. The new policy, however, does not explicitly say that past records on human rights will be a factor in decisions. It does contain a new commitment to “facilitate” ally and partner efforts “to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.”

Whether the implementation plan due soon from the Secretary of State explains how this will be done remains to be seen, but it is expected that training of forces will be touted as a critical component. Such training was written into arms sales last year to Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.

Proposed changes to the regulation of exports were announced May 14 and published in the Federal Register May 24, beginning a public comment period that ends in July.

Specifically, the rules relate to the first three categories of the United States Munitions List (USML) maintained under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), whose lead administrator is the Department of State. Under the proposal, many items would move from the USML to the Commerce Control List (CCL) to become part of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), whose lead administrator is the Commerce Department. Most notably, non-automatic and semi-automatic firearms and their ammunition currently controlled under USML category I would move to new EAR 500-series classifications in the CCL.

The primary rationale given for the change is that these weapons no longer merit tight control. According to the State Department: 

The Department of State is engaged in an effort to revise the U.S. Munitions List so that its scope is limited to those defense articles that provide the United States with a critical military or intelligence advantage or, in the case of weapons, are inherently for military end use. The articles now controlled by USML Categories I, II, and III that would be removed from the USML under this proposed rule do not meet this standard, including many items which are widely available in retail outlets in the United States and abroad.

The revisions were drafted during the previous administration’s export reform control initiative, which sought to build higher fences on fewer items. During Obama’s presidency, action was taken on 18 of the USML’s 21 categories, but frequent mass shootings and an administration more supportive of gun control efforts contributed to the firearms categories going unpublished.

Critics of President Trump, such as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), have pointed to the domestic U.S. gun lobby as the real driver behind these changes and called the decision to move forward “politically tone deaf as our nation reckons with a gun violence epidemic.”

Adding in Transparency and Enabling Assessment

As the Trump administration works to implement these changes, it should build in transparency and process changes that make it possible to assess whether U.S. arms exports are meeting the stated goals of the new policies.

This would not only be good public policy, but such an approach has the potential to address rising congressional and international distress about an administration that has shown less restraint, including by moving ahead with arms sales to Bahrain, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia that the previous administration had held back on due to serious human rights concerns.

As a start, a public accounting and evaluation of training that might go along with arms sales is desperately needed, especially if it will be a cornerstone of an effort to protect civilians. With another round of controversial precision-guided munition sales expected soon to Saudi Arabia (as well as the UAE), it is imperative that much more is shared about how training is done, who receives it, and whether it works.

As the Saudi-led coalition continues to hit civilian areas and an invasion of the port of Hodeida looms that threatens to further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it is not enough to simply say training is important. It must make a difference.

Similarly, much greater transparency into the arms sales process at a public level is critical. Under current procedure Congress is notified of potential major arms sales whether through the foreign military sales (FMS) process or via direct commercial sales (DCS), starting a review period by which it could block agreement to the sale.

Unlike FMS notifications, DCS notifications are not posted on a publicly accessible website, giving the American people less time to inform their representatives of any concerns. If the administration wants to make it easier for companies to negotiate their arms sales, it should also improve transparency into them.

While Congress can block or amend an arms sale up until a weapon is delivered, those deliveries often occur years after notification. There is typically much less public attention on arms sales during this period. If the administration wants to speed the time between agreement and delivery, it should agree to also make clear when a delivery is imminent, so as to create predictable moments for oversight. In 2014, Congress created a mechanism for receiving notification at least 30 days before delivery when requested on select sales, but has only used the authority once. The administration should instead make this standard on all sales and make it public.

Public reporting afterward, via the State Department’s so-called 655 report, also now has less detail than in the past. These reports, as well as others on end-use monitoring, should provide information on the number of specific weapons involved and other data, rather than broad categorical details. Importantly, reports from the Commerce Department should also improve in detail, especially if the changes on firearm exports are put into place that transfer oversight away from the State Department.

Without these specifics, it becomes more difficult not only to assess these policy changes, but to further goals such as combating illicit trafficking and weapons flows to terrorists and other unintended users.

A recent report from the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Stimson Center offers an array of good suggestions that run the life of a weapon—from pre-transfer to end-use monitoring—with “trigger” mechanisms along the way that allow for reassessment as situations change. Those recommendations, primarily focused on protecting civilians but also relevant to promoting human rights and international law, deserve strong consideration.

The Value of Congressional Oversight

In 2002 Congress amended its notification threshold so that it would be informed of potential commercial sales of firearms under USML category I when they were valued at just $1 million, as opposed to $14 million for other major weapons sales.

During a Sept. 26 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, then-ranking member Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) pointed to forestalling small arms sales to Turkey and the Philippines as recent examples of Congress’ needed role. In 2017, the administration notified Congress of more than $660 million of proposed firearms sales regulated under the USML, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.)No similar statutory requirement of congressional notification exists for most arms sales under the CCL, meaning Congress would lose its oversight role on these weapons. It could take steps to require that notification continues. In response to the new measures, Cardin said May 15

For years, I advised both the Obama and Trump Administrations against this type of transfer. Weakened Congressional oversight of international small arms and munitions sales is extremely hazardous to global security.  Small arms and light weapons are among the most lethal weapons that we and other countries export because these are the weapons that are most likely to be used to commit atrocities and suppress human rights, either by individuals, non-state groups, or governmental security and para-military forces.

While Congress does not have control over the president’s conventional arms transfer policy, it can mandate the types of transparency recommended above, including an expansion on pre-delivery notifications. It could also pass legislation that retains the classification of firearms as military weapons and placement on the USML.

The Administration’s Faulty “Economic Security” Excuse

According to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States remains the leading and expanding provider of major conventional weapons into a growing international arms market. Russia, long the number two arms exporter, is in decline as Washington accounts for more than one-third of all major weapons deliveries.

It begs credulity to argue that the United States needs a special push in order to compete in the international arms market. Linkages of U.S. jobs to international arms sales are also overblown as arms deals frequently come with co-production agreements or other incentives that support jobs abroad rather than at home.

At a more fundamental level, U.S. arms are not like any other commodity and should not be treated as such. These are first and foremost killing machines. The over-emphasis on economic security threatens to jeopardize higher priorities, including peace and security concerns. If more weapons flow to countries with poor human rights records, norms around responsible weapons use and transfer will be harder to build and uphold.

Regarding firearms, these weapons are controlled because a significant amount of violence that occurs, including against U.S. military and law enforcement personnel, is inflicted by small arms. Research indicates that the types of weapons being transferred to Commerce control—AR-15s and AK-47 style assault rifles and their ammunition—are “weapons of choice” of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Many can also be easily converted to fully automatic weapons, which will remain under USML control. U.S. military members often operate their fully-automatic-capable weapons in a semi-automatic or less-than-automatic mode.

The transfer of firearms export control to the Department of Commerce will also likely remove a number of brokering registration requirements, may open up license exemptions that facilitate weapons ending up in the wrong hands, and limit legal or investigative actions to stop such results.

Claiming that these weapons do not have military utility because they may be commercially available, are somehow less dangerous,or do not merit stronger international control, is wrong.

In the end, these policies continue the wrong-minded approach of the Trump administration to treat weapons as any other trade commodity, threatening to undermine long-term global security and true U.S. national security interests.—JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow

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If the Trump administration is serious about changing U.S. arms sales policies, it should add much greater transparency into the arms transfer and monitoring process. 

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New Policies Promote Arms, Drone Exports


May 2018
By Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration has revised policies guiding conventional arm transfers and drone exports, controversially placing greater emphasis on U.S. economic interests. A plan for implementing the policies is due in two months.

The April 19 national security presidential memorandum replaces a January 2014 presidential policy directive that, like the 1995 iteration from the Clinton administration, included an unweighted list of criteria to guide decisions on U.S. conventional arms transfers. Common to these policies are goals to improve the security of the United States and its allies, prevent proliferation, and support relevant multilateral agreements. New to the Trump approach is an explicit inclusion of “economic security” as a factor in considering whether to approve arms exports.

President Donald Trump makes a point about the U.S. economic benefits from arms sales during an Oval Office meeting March 20 with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.  (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)


The new policy on conventional arms transfers begins with an assertion that the defense industrial base employs more than 1.7 million people and that “the executive branch will advocate strongly” on behalf of U.S. companies and “maximize the ability” of U.S. industry “to grow and support allies and partners.”

The new policy on the export of unmanned aerial systems, full details of which remain classified, lists increasing trade opportunities for U.S. companies as one of five primary objectives. It replaces an “overly restrictive policy established in 2015 that hindered American companies,” according to a short White House statement. That statement places the new policies within the president’s “commitment to peace through strength” in part by “expanding opportunities for American industry [and] creating American jobs.”

The added focus on jobs and the economy was expected from the president, who has touted arms sales and called for speeding the process for arms deliveries. Exactly how that will be done remains to be determined. The policy says that the secretary of state is to deliver a proposed action plan within 60 days, a process that is expected to include consultation with industry and civil society groups.

In a news conference shortly before the new policies were released, Tina S. Kaidanow, principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, provided insights into how the policy changes for unmanned aerial systems, commonly referred to as drones, may speed delivery of certain items by allowing their sale to be directly negotiated by companies.

Under the new policy, so-called strike enabling technology, such as laser target designators that are not themselves armed, will no longer be required to go through the government-to-government process for negotiating foreign military sales, she said. Instead, the new policy allows companies to negotiate directly with foreign government buyers through the direct commercial sales process. Such an approach involves “fewer barriers and less confusion,” which can “potentially allow for faster procurement,” she said. The policy also allows for armed unmanned aerial systems to be transferred via either procurement process.

Citing increased competition from China, Peter Navarro, assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing policy, said the administration’s policy
on unmanned aerial systems “will level the playing field by enabling firms to increase their direct sales to authorized allies and partners.”

The policy also calls for the United States to seek changes to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as it applies to unmanned aerial systems, most likely to ease some presumptive restrictions given that drones fly more slowly than missiles. The MTCR, which has 35 member-states, works to restrict exports of missiles and related technologies capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload at least 300 kilometers, which applies to some
drone systems.

Both foreign military and direct commercial sales require that Congress be notified of certain potential arms sales. Congress can block the conclusion of an arms agreement within 30 days or act anytime until delivery. Kaidanow said that nothing in the new presidential memorandum “changes either the existing legal or regulatory requirements, and we are very respectful of Congress’ role in all of this.”

Although many worried that the new policies would jettison any mention of human rights, they do retain many of the same provisions as the Obama-era conventional arms transfer policy, although consolidating their reference to a single section rather than reiterating them throughout. The new policy also contains a commitment to “facilitate” ally and partner efforts “to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm.”

Nonetheless, the administration’s approach did draw criticism. The policies “present a clear political objective by the Trump administration—to demonstrate its ‘America First’ approach and promote U.S. industry,” said Rachel Stohl, deputy director of the Stimson Center in Washington and a board member of the Arms Control Association. “The policies focus on the benefits, rather than the risks, of arms exports and take a short-term view without fully incorporating potential long-term consequences,” she added.

Trump administration emphasizes economic benefits of U.S. weapons sales abroad.

Diplomats Debate Future of ‘Killer Robots’


 

The legal and moral issues surrounding lethal autonomous weapons systems were discussed April 9-13 in Geneva, the second such conference convened by the Group of Governmental Experts established by member-states of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. A total of 82 nations plus nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) attended the talks centered on developing a common understanding of the emerging technologies, potential future military use, and possible regulations and laws that could address security and humanitarian concerns about these systems.

Austria, China, and Colombia joined the list of nations urging a ban, which now totals 26, according to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. France and Germany stated that use of such weapons systems should be subject to a code of conduct based on international humanitarian law and national regulations. Jordan expressed concern that this advancing technology will lead to a new arms race. Cuba remarked on the possibility of hacking attacks on these systems and their potential use by terrorists. Germany also advocated for export controls of goods related to such autonomous weapons capabilities. The United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Russia refuse to accept any legally binding instrument to ban such prospective weapons. Another meeting is planned for Aug. 27-31.—MATTHIEU ORTIZ

Diplomats Debate Future of ‘Killer Robots’

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