In the United States, concerns over the conduct of the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen have grown in intensity in recent weeks amid reports that US-supplied weapons have been used directly in the conflict, including in the bombing of an MSF hospital.
Some members of Congress have responded by trying to block a reported $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, with bipartisan legislation reflecting its Senate counterpart being introduced into the House yesterday by Reps. Lieu, Mike Mulvaney (R-SC) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). How novel is this initiative? More precisely, when in the past has Congress or the Executive terminated, suspended or reduced arms sales or security assistance?
A quick review of the past 40 years shows that such action occurs more often than you might think. The list of examples below is not meant to be comprehensive, nor does it include an analysis of the specific circumstances or legal frameworks concerning each action. These examples are, nevertheless, hopefully instructive.
- In 1974, President Gerald Ford suspended issuance of new Foreign Military Sales credits and guarantees and major new cash sales to Turkey from July to October 1974. Subsequently, Congress passed a ban on military sales, subject only to temporary waiver by the President, which was used on at least one occasion.
- In 1975, following an amendment tabled by Sen. Edward Kennedy, Congress prohibited Chile from receiving any military assistance, extending this indefinitely in 1976, and to Argentina in 1978. Similar initiatives were undertaken in the late 1970s in respect of Uruguay.
- As far back as 1977, Mark L. Schneider, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Rights testified before the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the House International Relations Committee that “we have halted security assistance programs and withheld commercial licences for military equipment for armed forces in several countries which have engaged in serious human rights violations. No country can assume that it has a blank check to obtain arms from the United States, but especially those with serious human rights violations.”
- In February 1977, the US government announced that it had cut or eliminated military aid to Argentina, Ethiopia and Uruguay because of human rights concerns.
- In July 1977, the State Department said that it held up sale of police weapons to Argentina, El Salvador, Uruguay and “other countries” for a “human-rights oriented reason”.
- In June 1981, following an the Israeli attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in that month, President Ronald Reagan used the Arms Export Control Act to suspend a shipment of four F-16 aircraft scheduled for delivery to Israel, pending investigation of the circumstances. The suspension was lifted in August 1981. In July 1982, the Reagan administration declared that it was prohibiting the sale of cluster munitions to Israel, following allegations that Israeli forces used these weapons in populated areas in the conflict with Lebanon. This ban stayed in force until 1988.
- In 1986, Congress blocked a proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia, prompting a veto by President Reagan. Congress did not override Reagan’s veto, but, in response to the Congressional opposition, the sale was significantly reduced. There were similar instances of Congressional opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and 1990, resulting in delays or the attachment of additional conditions to the sales.
- In 1988, US cut its aid to Burma, including anti-narcotics and military training assistance, following the killing of unarmed protesters by security forces.
- In 1990, following legislative amendments requiring the Bush administration to certify that Pakistan did not have a nuclear device, which it was unable to do, sales of military equipment to Pakistan were barred.
- In 1999, the Clinton administration suspended the sale of handguns to Venezuela, due to concerns that the guns were ultimately reaching narcotics gangs and guerrillas in Colombia.
- In October 2013, the US government blocked or continued to block military assistance to Burma, Rwanda, Central African Republic, Sudan and Syria due to allegations that these countries were using child soldiers.
- Also in October 2013, the Obama administration announced a suspension of some military aid to Egypt due to democracy and human rights concerns following the military takeover and crackdown on the Muslim brotherhood.
- In 2015, some US anti-drug security assistance to Mexico was cut, following human rights concerns.
- As recently as last month, the Pentagon announced that it suspended $300 million in military aid to Pakistan for not taking sufficient action against the Haqqani network.