A day before Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, we offered a set of recommendations for the incoming president, urging him to reject the harmful transactional approach to arms transfer policy of previous administrations, and instead take measures to ensure that U.S. arms do not continue to undermine American foreign policy goals and fuel human rights violations, civilian harm, corruption, and criminal violence. As we near the 100-day mark of this administration, and with the president delivering a “State of the Union”-like address this evening, now is a good moment to assess its progress toward achieving those objectives.
Early signs suggested that the Biden administration could be off to a promising start. In January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed a pause was in place to review pending arms deals brokered during the Trump administration. A week later, in his first major foreign policy address, Biden announced that the United States would end all “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
Unfortunately, that early pace of public progress has not continued. And, on some issues, there are real reasons for concern. We again encourage the president’s team to take our initial recommendations to heart. As more officials are brought into the administration, many of whom are awaiting confirmation, much work is still needed to define a more responsible U.S. arms trade policy.
We recognize that not all of our recommendations can be easily tackled in the first 100 days. Yet there are a number of areas where easy opportunities for swift action and a clear message were missed, some steps taken that undercut stated administration goals, and others where the administration has put out concerning signals that undermine, rather than strengthen, human rights and civilian protection. We assess these below.
Moving Forward with Harmful Sales
We recommended an immediate pause and review of all notified arms transfers ahead of delivery, with particular emphasis on the need to pause and review the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, which the Trump administration notified to Congress in his last 30 days of office; more than $23 billion in F-35s, advanced drones, missiles and bombs for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), notified in November; and the more than $8 billion in sales pushed through to both countries via emergency measures in 2019. Such a review appears to have been in progress for the past few months.
But in the last few weeks it has become clear that the administration intends to move ahead with some of these harmful arms sales. On April 13, the State Department confirmed it would move forward with the $23 billion deal to the United Arab Emirates. Officials have defended the decision by stressing that conditions have yet to be fully agreed upon and that deliveries, should they occur, would still be years into the future. Then, the New York Times reported on April 14 that the vast majority of weapons in the pipeline to Saudi Arabia are also likely to go through. And last Saturday, the administration confirmed that U.S. contractors continue to provide active maintenance to the Saudi Air Force, despite the fact that airstrikes by the Saudi-led Coalition are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Yemen.
Given the human rights records of these countries, their role in fueling conflicts in Yemen and Libya, and the signal of impunity sent by continued U.S. support, the decision to continue arming them undermines Biden’s commitment to center human rights in his foreign policy. This failure doesn’t stop with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The administration also approved a weapons sale to Egypt despite a continued pattern of gross human rights violations, and just days after an American citizen’s relatives were detained for the second time in less than one year in an attempt to silence him. There are also indications that the administration will continue transferring arms to the repressive Duterte regime in the Philippines.
Deafening Silence on the Arms Trade Treaty
The administration’s failure to send a message to the United Nations rescinding the Trump administration’s 2019 letter to “unsign” the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is also disappointing. No congressional approval is needed for this administrative act — one that would align with the Democratic Party’s platform that pledged to seek ratification of the treaty. Instead, ATT meetings this week have allowed China to assert its compliance with and implementation of the ATT, filling the vacuum left by the United States. For a president that is championing multilateralism and responsible engagement with the world, it is nonsensical that his administration would not take the simple step to reaffirm the 2013 U.S. signature to the treaty and bring itself into alignment with its allies and 110 countries who are states parties to the first legally binding global treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms.
Pushing for Gun Reform at Home While Sending the Same Guns Abroad?
We recommended that the Biden administration return oversight of firearms licensing from the less rigorous monitoring undertaken by the Department of Commerce back to the State Department — something that Biden pledged to do during his campaign. Now in office, he has failed to take this administrative step. This lack of action on the foreign front is all the more surprising given his administration’s laudable efforts to tackle the epidemic of gun violence here in the United States, including calling on Congress to renew the assault weapons ban.
Although the data on the impact of the Trump administration’s oversight change is limited, analysis appears to suggest an alarming trend of expediting firearm exports to countries with significant human rights concerns. Just last week, key Senate Democrats again called for the president to take action — an opportunity he should seize immediately.
Siding with Trump on Drone Exports
It appears that the Biden administration will not reverse the Trump administration’s unilateral reinterpretation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), thereby making it easier for the United States to sell more armed drones abroad. This includes the planned sale of drones to the UAE, which has used drones to attack civilian targets in Libya and illegally transferred weapons to third parties. As Democratic Senator Chris Murphy rightly said last week about the administration’s plan to push ahead on finalizing the export of 18 MQ-9B drones to the UAE, “The Emiratis already have a record of illegally transferring weapons to Salafist militias in Yemen, and Congress, frankly, has not received sufficient assurances that such transfers will not happen again.”
We urge Biden to reconsider by adhering to the MTCR’s standards for the export of these deadly weapons — a decision that he could take at any time.
Mixed Signals on Landmines and Cluster Munitions
We recommended that the Biden administration join the majority of the world in banning the use, production, and transfer of antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions, and reverse the Trump administration’s concerning landmine policy – a step then-candidate Biden promised to take.
On April 6, a Department of Defense spokesperson alarmingly stated that U.S. landmine policy was unchanged and that antipersonnel landmines remained a “vital tool” for the U.S. military. Two days later, in a more promising sign that the president rejects the Trump administration’s approach to landmines, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield clarified, “President Biden has been clear that he intends to roll back this policy, and our administration has begun a policy review to do just that.”
We are disappointed that the administration did not simply reverse Trump-era policy in the first 100 days, an action that required no legislative measure. Even after undoing that policy, there will still be much more to do to fully renounce landmines, as well as cluster munitions. But if these mixed signals are any indication, persistent effort and clear leadership will be needed for the United States to join the global consensus against these indiscriminate weapons that continue to primarily harm civilians — often children — around the globe.
We recognize that some of our recommendations will take time — and hopefully, stakeholder consultation — to implement. While we have not yet seen public signs of progress on the below, we remain hopeful that the administration will implement them this year, as most require no congressional action:
- Develop and release a new Conventional Arms Transfer Policy that prioritizes human rights and international humanitarian law;
- Apply the Leahy laws to all arms transfers and include human rights in terms of sale;
- Require a risk assessment of all planned transfers;
- Strengthen end-use monitoring to include human rights, corruption, and civilian harm; and
- Work with Congress to reform the Arms Export Control Act.
The good news is that the Biden administration has already brought in and continues to fill the ranks with those who understand the dangers of short-sighted approaches to arms transfers and the importance of a human rights forward policy. The administration can go one step further to ensure that the assistant secretaries for the State Department’s regional bureaus (Near Eastern Affairs, East Asia and the Pacific, African Affairs, Europe, and Western Hemisphere Affairs) and its chiefs of mission in places like Egypt, the Philippines, and elsewhere, develop country-specific policies that align with the administration’s commitment.
In his speech announcing the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, Biden emphasized “it’s time to end the forever war.” But ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer. The United States cannot wash its hands of the actions abusive governments take with American-made arms, nor can it ignore the tacit approval for human rights abuses that is signaled by continued U.S. support. The Biden administration has repeatedly pledged to put human rights at the center of foreign policy. A more responsible, restrained, and rights-respecting approach to the arms trade is necessary to fulfill that pledge.
Image: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime address to the nation from the East Room of the White House March 11, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images