Technology & Trade

United States Releases New Arms Transfer Policy

The United States released a new conventional arms transfer policy earlier this year that updates and refreshes the policy for 21st century realities. Questions surrounding U.S. arms sales to Egypt and other Arab countries during the Arab Spring, when canisters of tear gas emblazoned with “Made in the USA” were seen during uprisings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, led to a reinvigorated examination of a policy that was rooted in the geopolitical challenges created by the fall of the Soviet Union. The new policy is guided by two fundamental, and somewhat paradoxical tenets:  to support transfers that meet the legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners in support of our national security and foreign policy interests; and to promote restraint, both by the United States and other suppliers, in transfers of weapon systems that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security.”

Presidential Policy Directive 27 (PPD-27) replaced a classified directive from 1995 that was rooted in the geopolitical challenges created by the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the policy review began when the Obama administration entered office, US officials have said the impetus to finish the review was triggered by events during the Arab Spring, when questions surrounding US arms sales to Arab countries led to increased scrutiny of US arms transfer decisions.

The new arms transfer policy states the goals of US conventional arms sales, outlines the process and criteria that guide US arms transfer decisions, clarifies the ways in which US policy on conventional arms transfer supports arms control and arms transfer restraint, and explains how the United States supports responsible arms transfers around the globe. The policy focuses significantly on human rights, international stability, homeland security, counter-terrorism, transnational organized crime and non-proliferation.

The policy reflects the legitimate role of conventional weapons to carry out defense and security policy, but also reflects the ways in which conventional arms transfers can have negative impacts, which are often unintended.  PPD-27 has 10 clear goals that enunciate the ways in which arms transfers serve US national security and foreign policy, eight of which are represented in some form in the 1995 policy. These range from “supporting democratic governance” to “enhancing the ability of allies and partners.” The 2014 policy elaborates upon these concepts and adds two new goals to the foreign policy and security aims: “[p]romoting cooperative counterterrorism, critical infrastructure protection, and other homeland security priorities” and “[c]ombating transitional organized crime and related threats to national security.”

The addition of these two goals highlights the ways in which the world has changed since 1995 and the new US policy priorities that have arisen in response to the September 11 attacks. The policy better addresses the threats faced by the United States today, particularly transnational challenges and complex relationships with allies and partners. It also provides a more flexible framework for the use of arms transfers to bolster the US defense industrial base, to promote global governance, to support weapons technology superiority for the United States and US allies, and the use of arms sales to support particular government regimes and reward governments that have supported US interests.

The policy describes how US arms transfer decisions take a variety of factors into consideration. One criterion does not outweigh another, and each transfer is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The policy lists 13 specific criteria used in making arms transfer decisions, which are largely the same as in the 1995 policy, with the exception of two new conditions: “the risk that significant change in the political or security situation of the recipient country could lead to inappropriate end-use or transfer of defense articles” and “the likelihood that the recipient would use the arms to commit human rights abuses or serious violations of international humanitarian law, retransfer the arms to those who would commit human rights abuses or serious violations of international humanitarian law, or identify the United States with human rights abuses or serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

PPD-27 also announces an absolute prohibition of certain US arms transfers, stating that “the United States will not authorize any transfer if it has actual knowledge at the time of authorization that the transferred arms will be used to commit: genocide; crimes against humanity; grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949; serious violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949; attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians who are legally protected from attack or other war crimes as defined in 18 U.S.C. 2441.” This prohibition reflects a commitment to ensuring that US arms are not knowingly provided to the world’s worst despots and human rights abusers.

The policy also lists ways in which the United States can “exercise unilateral restraint” with regard to certain arms exports. Although such a statement existed in the past, PPD-27 provides the most comprehensive listing of these conditions and includes for the first time restraint  “where the transfer of weapons raises concerns about undermining international peace and security, serious violations of human rights law, including serious acts of gender-based violence and serious acts of violence against women and children, serious violations of international humanitarian law, terrorism, transnational organized crime, or indiscriminate use.” These concepts reflect the obligations in the Arms Trade Treaty, which Secretary Kerry signed in September 2013.

The policy outlines the US focus on streamlined security cooperation, saying that the US government “will take all available steps to hasten the ultimate provision of conventional arms and security assistance,” which reflects the US emphasis on interoperability and burden sharing that has become more prevalent in the aftermath of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

PPD-27 reaches beyond what the US does domestically and tries to set an example for the rest of the world by supporting the development of the growing international consensus that arms transfers should not put innocent civilians at risk. However, the new policy does not rule out the possibility that some ill-advised transfers will be made in the name of national security, nor does it mean that arms sales will be guaranteed if they meet all the criteria outlined in the policy. Instead, the new policy provides the opportunity for increased scrutiny over US arms transfer decisions. As recently announced arms sales demonstrate, only time will if the United States exercises greater restraint in making future arms transfer decisions.

A longer version of this article was published as “Promoting Restraint: Updated Rules for U.S. Arms Transfer Policy” in the March issue of Arms Control Today on March 19, 2014.

2014 conventional arms transfer policy fact sheet.

Photo by US Air Force via Flickr


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