Should the US Sell Weapons to States That Commit Human Rights Violations?

Should the US Sell Weapons to States That Commit Human Rights Violations?

New legislation has been introduced to the US Congress that seeks to stop US weapons from being sold to states that are known human rights abusers or have ties to violent movements. At a time when US sales of military equipment are increasingly under scrutiny (e.g., Saudi Arabia or Turkey), bipartisan initiatives like S.854, the “Enhancing Human Rights Protections in Arms Sales Act of 2019,” are particularly noteworthy.

The bill was introduced by Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.); its co-sponsors include Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

S.854 has several initiatives and statements worth mentioning. For example, the legislation stresses that human rights should be respected and promoted by US foreign policy as “the human rights standards that the United States sets on arms transfers has global ramifications, influencing standards set by other nations around the world.”

The bill also explains how it will scrutinize governments that aim at obtaining US weaponry. For instance, during the fiscal year in which the equipment will be transferred and in the preceding three years, the recipient nation must have “not ordered or directed ethnic cleansing of civilians,” “not recruited and used child soldiers,” “not tortured, falsely imprisoned, or engaged in the targeted killing of political opponents, human rights defenders, or journalists,” and so on.

It is also important to note how, according to S.854, Washington can check whether potential recipient nations are committing the aforementioned abuses. The bill explains that Washington can rely on information, “including from credible nongovernmental investigations,” to check whether “war crimes, crimes against humanity, gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, or atrocities have been committed by the government of the recipient country.” In other words, the bill openly calls for nongovernmental organizations to have a direct role in ensuring that US weapons are not utilized to commit atrocities.

In an interview with the author, Kate Kizer, policy director at Win Without War, explained that “civil society should be involved in determining whether US weapon sales will do more harm and/or be misused by recipient nations,” and that it is a positive development that there is a growing awareness in the US Congress about the useful role of NGOs in this issue.

Analyzing US weapons sales in 1,000 words is a Herculean task, so we will provide some basic facts and recent developments to understand the purpose of this bill. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), for the period 2013–17, the US was the largest exporter of weapons in the world, with a 34 percent share of the global market—the main importers of US weaponry were Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia, in that order. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency keeps a list of major arms transfers authorized by the US State Department, which provides a good idea of the amounts of money some of these deals involve. For example, the DSCA announced on March 25 the approval of a sale of military technology to Morocco (to upgrade the country’s 23 F-16 warplanes)—the deal is worth an estimated $985 million.

Weapons sales to Saudi Arabia have been particularly criticized due to Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen, in which countless civilians have lost their lives. Moreover, Riyadh was also involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last year.

Furthermore, even non-lethal equipment can be utilized to commit human rights abuses. For example, the US has donated J8 jeeps (among other equipment) to the Guatemalan military to improve internal security operations. Unfortunately, President Jimmy Morales has deployed his troops to harass the CICIG (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala), and US diplomats have been reportedly intimated, too. In response, several members of the US Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in December 2018 to “urge the Department to take effective steps to ensure that this situation be rectified.”

Critics of S.854 can argue that such sales are important for the US weapons industry, which encompasses tens of thousands of jobs, and that if Washington does not sell them, someone else will. Indeed, SIPRI explains that the major weapons exporters after the US are Russia, France, Germany, China, and the UK, in that descending order. However, the fact that other states are willing to sell their military technology to a government known for committing human rights abuses and other atrocities may be a financial argument, but it is not a moral one. There are already precedents regarding this issue: Germany has suspended sales to Saudi Arabia over Yemen, though Berlin reportedly wants to restart them.

S.854 is an attempt to improve the monitoring of US weapons transfers to states that are proven human rights abusers or that support violent criminal movements. As Win Without War’s Kizer argues, “providing weapons to countries that violate human rights, perpetrate war crimes, and other violations of the rule of law is not in US national security interests. S.854 recognizes this reality and ensures that there are clear moral and national security considerations upheld in US arms exports.”

The realm of the global arms trade is very complex as it converges morality, national interests, financial interests, and geopolitics. It will be important to monitor the future of S.854 and what this means for the future of US weapons exports.


Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues.

Photo Credit: A Royal Saudi Air Force maintenance airman gestures to the F-15SA aircrew via hand signals as they prepare for a mission during Red Flag 19-2 at Nellis Air Force Base on March 19, 2019. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Isaiah Soliz.

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