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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Conventional Arms Control

New U.S. Arms Policy Calls for ‘Restraint’

Jefferson Morley

The Obama administration in January announced a new policy on conventional arms transfers that emphasizes the need for restraint in considering transfers that might endanger regional security or human rights.

President Barack Obama declared in a Jan. 15 directive that the new policy “supports transfers that meet legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners in support of our national security and foreign policy interests” and “promotes restraint” in those “that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security.”

The policy, which replaces a 1995 directive issued by President Bill Clinton, follows the administration’s announcement last October that it was loosening rules on the sale of U.S.-made weapons overseas. The reforms announced last fall are part of an effort that the administration says will tighten controls on the sale of the most dangerous arms while enhancing commerce in defense material and services that are not threatening. (See ACT, November 2013.)

Obama’s new policy, in combination with changes in State and Commerce department regulations announced in October and Secretary of State John Kerry’s signing of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) last September, marks a significant evolution in the U.S. approach to the global conventional arms trade, worth tens of billions of dollars a year to U.S. manufacturers.

“A lot has happened since 1995,” Tom Kelly, acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, wrote in a Feb. 3 posting on the State Department’s blog. Kelly cited “the spread of globalized terrorism epitomized in the September 11, 2001, attacks” and “the development of regional security partnerships to combat emerging threats, such as those arising from ungoverned territories and transnational crime.”

“Events in the Middle East and Africa during the past three years also provided a major impetus to this review,” Kelly wrote.

Obama’s directive reiterates the goal of the 1995 arms sales guidance—to make sure the United States “continues to enjoy technological superiority”—but adds a more explicit commitment to “ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.”

The new policy also requires officials to consider “the risk that significant change in the political or security situation of the recipient country could lead to inappropriate end-use or transfer of defense articles.”

In Jan. 15 summary of the directive, the White House said “the scope of the policy has also broadened to include not only transfers of arms, but also the provision of related services and the transfer of technical data related to arms.” The 1995 policy dealt with these issues in general terms. The new policy addresses them directly.

Obama pledged to continue U.S. participation in multilateral arms control efforts, including the UN Register of Conventional Arms and the UN Standardized Instrument for Reporting Military Spending. The directive restated the U.S. commitment to the Wassenaar Arrangement, a voluntary international effort launched in 1996 to prevent destabilizing buildups of conventional arms.

“We will continue to use the Wassenaar Arrangement to promote shared national policies of restraint against the acquisition of armaments and sensitive dual-use goods and technologies for military end-uses by states whose behavior is a cause for serious concern,” the directive states.

Although the new directive did not mention the ATT, analysts noted that some of its language matches the text of the treaty. The ATT faces an uphill battle for Senate approval. (See ACT, December 2013.)

Obama declared that the United States would not approve arms transfers that might be politically destabilizing or lead to human rights abuses. The United States will “exercise unilateral restraint in the export of arms in cases where such restraint will be effective or is necessitated by overriding national interests,” the directive states.

One industry leader questioned the U.S. approach. During a Jan.15 event at the Atlantic Council, Textron CEO Ellen Lord said there is a “fear of risk” in the U.S. approval process, according to Defense News.

“We’re trying to enable our partners around the world to have the security that they can get by buying our products, and yet we’re inhibiting them getting those products,” said Lord, whose company is a major defense contractor.

Arms control advocates applauded Obama’s initiative. The directive “holds out hope that human rights will be restored to a central place in arms transfer decision making after years of being subordinated to other concerns,” wrote defense analyst William Hartung in The Hill.

Click here for an analysis of the new arms transfer policy.

A new presidential directive on conventional arms transfers emphasizes the prevention of human rights abuses and regional arms races.


Week Ahead Feb. 17-21: Iran Nuclear Talks Resume; OPCW Meets on Syria; Will the U.S. Join Mine Ban Treaty?

This bulletin highlights significant events in the world of arms control in the coming days, as compiled by staff and friends of the Arms Control Association. For more news and analysis on these and other weapons-related security issues, consider subscribing to ACA's monthly journal Arms Control Today . Available in print/digital and digital-only subscriptions. - the Editors at Arms Control Today Feb. 18: P5+1 Talks with Iran on Its Nuclear Program Resume In Vienna Diplomats from the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Iran will convene in...

Experts Urge President Obama to Conclude Landmine Policy Review and Join the Mine Ban Treaty

By Ashley Luer It has been more than a year since the White House announced that it would "soon" be releasing the results of a U.S. Landmine Policy review that was launched early in President Obama's first term in office. Since 2009, the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines (USCBL) has been urging the Obama administration to conclude its review and to join the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, typically referred to as the " Ottawa Convention " or "Mine Ban Treaty." The Mine Ban Treaty requires that...

UN Bans Arms to Central African Republic

Jefferson Morley

The UN Security Council on Dec. 5 unanimously approved a resolution banning the sale or transfer of weapons to the Central African Republic, where sectarian militias have been engaged in escalating violence. Resolution 2127 also bans for one year the sale or transfer of ammunition, military equipment, spare parts, and technical assistance and training to any person or entity except the country’s security forces and an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission.

The country of 5 million people has been the scene of deadly clashes between predominantly Muslim former rebels who took power last March and Christian “self-defense” groups. The violence has spread across the mineral-rich country in recent months, displacing more than 600,000 people and raising fears of a genocide like the one that occurred in Rwanda in 1994.

In response, the French government in late November tripled the number of its soldiers in the 1,200-person AU peacekeeping mission. The U.S. government has committed $100 million to support the AU force. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made an unannounced trip to the Central African Republic on Dec. 20, saying she wanted to see the unfolding crisis for herself.

Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch called the Security Council resolution “a crucial step,” but he said the effects of the arms embargo would be difficult to judge, adding that little is known about where the country’s armed groups obtain their weapons.

The Central African Republic is bordered on the south by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to the east by South Sudan, which are home to a variety of heavily armed militias. “In a region with poor governance, small arms circulate easily and widely,” Bolopion said in a Dec. 20 interview.

The UN resolution created a committee to monitor and enforce the arms embargo and called for it to report on the embargo’s effectiveness within 60 days.

The UN Security Council on Dec. 5 unanimously approved a resolution banning the sale or transfer of weapons to the Central African Republic, where sectarian militias have been engaged in escalating violence. Resolution 2127 also bans for one year the sale or transfer of ammunition, military equipment, spare parts, and technical assistance and training to any person or entity except the country’s security forces and an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission.

Who Will Be the 2013 Arms Control Person of the Year? Vote Now.

Okay folks. It is that time of the year. The sun is low in the northern hemisphere; holiday-driven shopping is in full swing; Congress has finally left Washington DC at peace; you are drinking more eggnog than you should; NORAD is working to put a shine on its image by tracking Santa (while still looking out for Russian nuclear-armed ICBMs); the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded; holiday cards are arriving; and ... the Arms Control Association's Arms Control Person of the Year balloting is open ! Every year since 2007, ACA's staff has nominated several individuals and institutions that best...

Meeting Set to Discuss Autonomous Arms

Daniel Horner

Countries meeting in Geneva last month agreed to start discussions on a class of weapons that can use lethal force without human intervention.

At a Nov. 15 session of the annual meeting of parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), countries decided to hold an “informal” meeting of experts next May 13-16 “to discuss the questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems,” according to the official document summarizing the results of the session. The May discussions are to be “in the context of the objectives and purposes” of the CCW, which bans or restricts the use of certain types of conventional weapons.

The Nov. 15 decision represents the first international attempt to grapple with what observers and participants say are the complex and, in some cases, unique issues raised by these weapons systems, dubbed by their critics as “killer robots.”

Jean-Hugues Simon-Michel, the French ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva who chaired the CCW meeting, said in a Nov. 25 e-mail to Arms Control Today that one of the reasons the topic is complex is that the technologies in question are still under development. The May meeting is intended to be “a first step toward building a common understanding of the questions raised” by the topic, he said, adding that “[i]t is too early to say” what the final result of the process will be.

The issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems has drawn increased attention in the past year or so. In November 2012, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School produced a report calling for a “preemptive prohibition on [the] development and use” of such systems. In an April report, Christof Heyns, special rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council, recommended a number of steps including the establishment of “an international body…to monitor the situation [with regard to autonomous weapons] and articulate the options for the longer term.”

Simon-Michel is to chair the May meeting and prepare a report “objectively reflecting the discussions held” for next year’s annual meeting of the CCW. In the Nov. 25 e-mail, he said that with the report in hand, the CCW parties, “on the basis of the discussions and exchange of views, will be in a position to take an informed decision in November 2014 on how to further elaborate on this topic.”

Under the mandate, the chairman of the May meeting is to submit the report “under his own responsibility,” which means the meeting participants do not need to agree to approve it.

In a Nov. 15 statement, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations, hailed the CCW parties’ decision earlier that day as “historic.” Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch, the campaign’s global coordinator, said it was noteworthy that there had been so little opposition to the idea of the May meeting.

“Nobody’s calling for the status quo,” she said in a Nov. 20 interview.

Countries meeting in Geneva last month agreed to start discussions on a class of weapons that can use lethal force without human intervention.

Arms Trade Treaty Prompts Sharp Debate

Jefferson Morley

A senior State Department official last month defended the Arms Trade Treaty, signed by the U.S. government in September, after 50 senators wrote to President Barack Obama saying they would oppose the pact.

In the Oct. 15 letter, the senators charged that the treaty undermines U.S. credibility, threatens the rights of gun owners, and impinges on U.S. sovereignty. The lawmakers said they “cannot give [their] advice and consent to this treaty” and “do not regard the U.S. as bound to uphold its object and purpose.”

At a Nov. 7 event at the Stimson Center, Thomas Countryman, the lead U.S. representative at the treaty negotiations, rejected the criticisms as “inaccurate.”

The treaty, which establishes common international standards for transfers of conventional arms, “does not imperil the rights of United States citizens, including those secured by the Second Amendment,” said Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation. “It does not undermine national sovereignty. It does not require any measure that would impact the rights of American gun owners…[and] it’s fully consistent with existing United States law.”

The White House has not announced when it will send the treaty to the Senate, but the letter signals the hurdles that the ATT will face when the treaty reaches Capitol Hill.

The signatories to the letter, including 46 Republicans and four Democrats, cited six objections.

The first concerned the treaty’s approval by majority vote, not consensus as originally planned, in the UN General Assembly. “We fear that this reversal has done grave damage to the diplomatic credibility of the United States,” the senators said.

ATT supporters point out that U.S. negotiators only abandoned the consensus approach for negotiations in April, after last-minute opposition from Iran, North Korea, and Syria blocked consensus approval of the treaty. Their objections prompted the United States and other countries to present the treaty to the General Assembly, where it was overwhelmingly approved.

The senators argued that the ATT could be amended in the future, leaving the United States subject to provisions that the Senate had not approved. Supporters say that objection is based on a draft of the treaty that was subsequently amended to state that amendments would have no force in any signatory country unless specifically approved by the country.

At the Nov. 7 event, which was organized by the Arms Control Association and the Stimson Center, Countryman said the treaty “reaffirms explicitly the right and responsibility of each country to decide for itself, consistent with its own constitution,…how to deal with conventional arms use exclusively within its own borders.” The senators’ letter called those provisions “weak” and “non-binding.”

The treaty creates a legal responsibility to prevent the diversion of firearms, and that provision “could be used to justify the imposition of controls” within the United States that would violate gun owners’ rights, the senators said.

Countryman disputed that claim, saying, “Our instructions were clear, that we could not agree to any treaty that infringed upon such rights. We did not. This treaty is focused on international trade in conventional weapons.”

The senators also said that the treaty could “hinder the ability of the United States to fulfill its strategic, legal and moral commitments” to selling arms to Israel and Taiwan.

Countryman countered that the treaty is “fully consistent with existing United States law and practice on the international transfer of conventional arms.”

The State Department has offered “to brief senators one at a time or 50 at a time, to listen carefully to their concerns, to express some of the same points that I made today,” Countryman said. “They bear a heavy responsibility in making such a decision.”

Approval of the treaty in the Senate requires a two-thirds majority. Countryman said he did not expect the administration to transmit the treaty to the Senate “in the immediate future.”

After 50 senators blasted the treaty, a senior State Department official gave a detailed public defense of it.

Russian Arms Dealer Loses Appeal

Jefferson Morley

A federal appeals court in late September upheld the conviction of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, a decision that the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned as “unjust and politicized.”

Bout was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 following a series of meetings with undercover agents posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He was extradited to the United States, where he was convicted in November 2011 of conspiring to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, kill U.S. nationals, kill U.S. officials, and provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. (See ACT, December 2011.) In April 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The legal proceedings against Bout set off to a bitter diplomatic dispute between Washington and Moscow, with Russia attempting to have Bout, a former Soviet military officer, transferred to Russia to serve his sentence.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York found “no merit” in Bout’s claim his extradition was illegal because it resulted from what he called “coercive political pressure” exerted by Washington on the Thai government.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Sept. 28 statement said that judges had “ignored the obvious facts of the illegal actions of the American special services” during Bout’s arrest.

The statement said the ministry and the Russian embassy in the Washington would continue to support Bout “to ensure his speedy return to the homeland.”

Bout is serving his sentence at a U.S. medium-security prison in Marion, Illinois

A federal appeals court in late September upheld the conviction of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, a decision that the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned as “unjust and politicized.”

ACA Welcomes U.S. Decision to Sign Arms Trade Treaty

Mock Scud-B missiles on display at the Korean War Museum in Seoul. (Source: AP Photos) By Daryl G. Kimball News reports published today citing senior U.S. officials indicate that the Obama administration will make the United States a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty , which was concluded in negotiations earlier this year and approved by the UN General Assembly in April and opened for signature in June. The Arms Control Association--along with dozens of major U.S. human rights, religious, international development, and arms control groups--welcome U.S. signature of the treaty. The Barack...

NGOs Urge President Obama to Sign Global Arms Trade Treaty



U.S. Signature Needed to Advance Global Arms Trade Treaty
Non-governmental Organizations Urge President Obama to Provide Leadership

For Immediate Release: September 24, 2013
Media Contact: Tim Farnsworth, Program Assoc./Communications Coordinator 202-463-8270, ext. 105

(Washington, D.C.)-As President Barack Obama and other world leaders gather in New York for the UN General Assembly, a wide array of human rights, development, religious, and security organizations are urging the United States to sign the new Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

In a letter sent to the White House last month, the leaders of 33 national organizations congratulated the Obama administration for "helping to successfully conclude negotiations for an effective Arms Trade Treaty earlier this year." Signatories to the letter to President Obama to sign include: Amnesty International USA, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam America, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

U.S. signature of the ATT, they write, "would be a powerful step demonstrating the United States' commitment to preventing mass atrocities and protecting civilians from armed conflict around the globe."

The ATT will for the first time establish common international standards that must be met before states authorize transfers of conventional weapons or export ammunition and weapons parts and components. It will close loopholes in export controls in key countries and improve law enforcement efforts to crack down on the illicit arms market.

The ATT also prohibits arms transfer authorizations to states if the state "has the knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes."

In June when the treaty was first opened for signature, the Obama administration signaled its support but did not sign, citing the need to ensure the text of the treaty was consistently translated in all of the official UN languages. U.S. signature would build momentum toward the treaty's entry into force and will put pressure on other major arms exporting states, including Russia, and China, and arms buyers, including India, to join the treaty.

Several resources on the ATT are available from the Arms Control Association:

ACA experts are available for interviews:

  • Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, ACA (202-463-8270 x107); and
  • Rachel Stohl, senior associate, Stimson Center; member of ACA Board of Directors; and former consultant to the president of the ATT diplomatic conference (202-464-2679).


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding and effective policies to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons: nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, as well as certain types of conventional weapons that pose a threat to noncombatants. ACA publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.


(Washington, D.C.)-As President Barack Obama and other world leaders gather in New York for the UN General Assembly, a wide array of human rights, development, religious, and security organizations are urging the United States to sign the new Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).


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