Galvanized by public outrage over the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children and civilians during Israel’s bombing of Gaza in May, progressive legislators introduced a joint resolution to block a pending $735 million US arms deal to Israel, stating, “It is long past time to end the US policy of unconditional military arms sales, particularly to governments that have violated human rights.”
Less than a week later, the resolution failed. The sale will proceed despite US laws expressly prohibiting the transfer of security assistance, including arms sales, to states committing human rights abuses.
This outcome is far from an anomaly. America routinely arms abusive governments despite officially outlawing such sales. Of the 43 states offered weapons through the Foreign Military Sales program that Congress received notification about in 2020, 40% were identified in State Department reports as having “significant human rights issues.” In six of these countries — Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Philippines, and Ukraine — security forces were found to commit abuses against their own citizens with impunity. The UAE was the largest client for US arms, receiving offers worth $24.1 billion. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which was offered $640 million in US weaponry in 2020, were implicated by the United Nations for committing war crimes in Yemen. Israel, which was involved in deals for $5.4 billion in 2020, has been in violation of international law for building illegal settlements on Palestinian land since 2016.
The US is the world’s largest arms exporter, accounting for 37% of the global arms trade with sales totaling nearly $111 billion in 2020. The value of arms sold abroad would be even higher if complete data were available about weapons sold directly from American vendors to foreign governments. In addition, the US provided approximately $16 billion dollars in security aid for weapons, training, and equipment to more than 100 foreign governments in 2020. Aid is routinely given to countries with abysmal human rights records who rarely make national headlines. The east-African nation of Uganda is a primary example.
The lack of accountability over US security assistance is the result of Congress’s decision to use a passive method of authorization that defers the provision of security assistance to the executive branch. Currently, unless each chamber of Congress passes a resolution of disapproval to block a sale or transfer with a two-thirds majority, the proposed weapons sale or aid proceeds by default. Despite bipartisan efforts, Congress has never successfully stopped the President from arming a foreign government, even when the recipient country was actively committing human rights violations with US-made weapons.
Despite bipartisan efforts, Congress has never successfully stopped the President from arming a foreign government, even when the recipient country was actively committing human rights violations with US-made weapons.
Today, the United States faces sky-rocketing national debt, two failed wars that the majority of veterans say were not worth fighting, robust global and domestic terrorist organizations, and remains largely unprepared for the most pressing security threats, including cyber-attacks, natural disasters, future pandemics, and white supremacist extremism. There is little evidence that military aid reduces terrorism abroad, while waste and abuse by recipient countries is widespread. Despotic leaders use US defense dollars to oppress their populations and suppress movements for democracy within their own borders, with no incentive to improve corruption and poor governance. Meanwhile, American weapons manufacturers report record profits.
Congress has the responsibility, authority, and opportunity to assert itself and course-correct our failing defense strategy, including improving oversight over security assistance. Last year, Democratic Senators introduced the SAFEGUARD Act which would amend the Arms Export Control Act to explicitly include human rights conditions in arms deals. While it’s unclear if additional conditions alone will be enough given the President’s authority to override oversight provisions, Congress should pass the SAFEGUARD Act and send a message to the world that American citizens do not support arming human rights abusers.
Additionally, Congress should consider a bill like one then-Senator Biden introduced in 1986 requiring the President to seek an affirmative congressional vote on risky arms deals. Known as “flip the script,” this policy would require congressional permission for sending security assistance to states with poor human rights records. The State Department could easily create a list of high-risk recipients that require affirmative authorization with the reporting they are already required to do. This proactive approach would put Congress in a much more capable position to oversee the transfer of defense articles instead of continuing with inconsistent and flat-footed responses to bad deals. There is little evidence that withholding security aid from select countries would lead to a surge in Chinese or Russian arms — China makes up just 5% of the global arms trade (versus the US and EU’s combined 63%), and Russia’s market share is in decline. Extra scrutiny would also enhance US interests by creating better incentives for prospective recipients to improve their record of governance.
This should not be a difficult choice. 70% of American feel that arms sales to foreign countries makes the US less safe. In addition, a new poll shows that 56% of the US public supports cutting the defense budget to pay for domestic healthcare, education, and housing.
Enhancing congressional oversight is more important than ever, given that security assistance is expected to increase as US troops withdraw from battlefields around the world. Just as there is bipartisan support for repealing the AUMF and requiring the Department of Defense to comply with a federal audit, members on both sides of the aisle agree more can be done to balance the executive branch, and should act together to guarantee greater accountability over how taxpayer dollars are spent on security assistance. Continuing the status quo dooms our country to persist down an unsustainable, wasteful path that does little to improve domestic or international security and implicates the American people in the violence of oppressive regimes.
Congress is not an impotent body. It has authority to act for the benefit of US taxpayers and civilians around the world. It should use it.
Hanna Homestead is an advocate for progressive peace and security policies. A recent graduate of Columbia SIPA, she focuses on enhancing oversight of US security assistance and reporting on the global impact of the US arms trade.