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US bolsters human rights criteria for arms sales

The arms transfer policy takes into account how US weapons sales could be used to commit rights abuses.
Taiwanese navy launches a US-made Standard missile from a frigate during the annual Han Kuang Drill, on the sea near the Suao navy harbor in Yilan county on July 26, 2022. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP) (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has revamped its arms export policy to include new criteria it says will reduce the risk that US weapons sold overseas will be used to commit human rights abuses. 

Under the revised US Conventional Arms Transfer Policy released Thursday, a weapon transfer or sale cannot be approved if the US government assesses the recipient would “more likely than not” use the arms to commit or facilitate acts including genocide, crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Conventions or other serious violations of international law. 

It’s a lower threshold for denying sales than under the previous policy, which required the government to have “actual knowledge” that such acts would be committed — a standard that arms experts say was nearly impossible to meet. In 2018, former President Donald Trump announced changes to the arms transfer policy that critics said further prioritized defense contractors over human rights considerations. 

Seth Binder, the director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, called the newly released language on human rights a significant improvement to both the Trump and Obama administrations’ policies.  

“But ultimately, all of this is only as good as the implementation,” Binder said. “There's also language in there that’s so broad one could argue we have to go through with this arms transfer because it is really important to US national security.” 

A senior State Department official briefing reporters did not outline how proposed sales to specific countries could be impacted but said the US government will continue “looking at and making risk assessments on every arms transfer on a case by case basis.”

In keeping with a campaign promise, the Biden administration in January 2021 announced a pause on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as part of a review of arms deals made during the Trump administration's waning days. The Biden administration has since approved weapons sales to the Gulf countries it said were required to fend off cross-border attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels, including the sale of advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles to Riyadh.

More recently, the administration’s proposed sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey has faced resistance in Congress, with lawmakers signaling they won’t approve the multibillion-dollar sale unless Ankara approves Sweden's and Finland’s bids to join NATO. Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also cited Ankara’s human rights record as part of his objection to the potential sale. 

Egypt has also bought billions of dollars worth of military equipment under the Biden administration, despite a sweeping government crackdown on dissent. Citing rights concerns, the State Department said in September that it would be withholding 10% of Egypt’s roughly $1.3 billion in annual security assistance. 

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