Key Point: These are positive steps, but one should remain skeptical about their likely impact.
Media reports recently revealed that President Biden will revise the nation’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, with an eye to elevating concerns for the human rights implications of arms exports. Such a move is long overdue, as we have argued in the Arms Sales Risk Index reports over the past several years. Over the past twenty years, the United States has sold billions of dollars worth of weapons to governments with horrendous human rights records. Tragically, some of those weapons have been used to kill civilians and political opponents.
Congress has also been focused on the arms sales and human rights nexus. In a recent piece up at Defense One, Jordan Cohen and I analyze the National Security Powers Act, sponsored by Chris Murphy (D-CT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). This legislation would strengthen Congress’ role in the arms sales process by requiring the White House to get congressional approval for major arms sales. The Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act, introduced recently by Rep. Omar (D-MN), would provide another useful mechanism, automatically prohibiting sales to any government guilty of gross violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.
These are positive steps, but one should remain skeptical about their likely impact. First, though Biden might be willing to sign them into law, it is far from certain that the two bills will make it that far given other congressional priorities and likely Republican opposition. Second, arms sales have long been a favorite foreign policy tool of presidents. During Biden’s time in office, the United States has continued to sell weapons to pretty much whoever wants them. Thus, there is good reason to suspect that any revisions to the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy will be more rhetoric than real.
This article was first published by The Cato Institute.