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US foreign arms and training programs are out of control

Jan 02, 2024Jan 02, 2024

The New York Times confirmed this week what we’ve long suspected, that American forces don't properly vet proxies fighting on their behalf.

Two developments this week underscored the fact that U.S. programs that provide arms and training to foreign military forces are out of control, to the detriment of human rights, regional stability, and U.S. security.

First, the New York Times reported that two programs designed to train foreign proxy forces to act on America's behalf do not engage in human rights vetting of the personnel involved. The article noted that under the first program, known as 127e or 127 Echo, "American commandos pay, train and equip foreign partner forces and then dispatch them on kill-or-capture operations."

The second program, known as Section 1202, funds activities short of war, from propaganda to sabotage. It had long been suspected that the two programs ignored human rights concerns, but the Times confirmed it for the first time via official U.S. government documents, which were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), who has promoted legislation to introduce human rights screening into the programs, underscored what is at stake.

"We need to make sure that we are not training abusive units to become even more lethal and fueling the conflict and violence that we’re aiming to solve," she said. "And that starts with universal human rights vetting."

Rep. Jacobs plans to introduce a bill later this year to close the human rights loophole in the 127 Echo and Section 1202 programs.

Meanwhile, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointing out the deep flaws in U.S. efforts at "end-use monitoring," which primarily involves verifying the physical security of U.S.-supplied weapons in theory in an effort to ensure that they do not end up in the hands of unauthorized third parties, from militias to terrorist groups to countries that would not otherwise be approved to receive arms from the U.S.

What current end-use monitoring efforts do not do, as noted by the senators in their letter, is actually track how U.S. weapons are used by the recipient nation. This opens the possibility that U.S.-armed nations can commit severe human rights abuses or kill large numbers of civilians with impunity.

For example, in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have killed thousands of civilians through air strikes and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands more by enforcing a blockade that has hindered the import of essential supplies. Yet, other than a suspension of one sale of precision-guided munitions late in President Obama's second term and a pause of two bomb sales early in President Biden's term, they have suffered no consequences, and U.S. sales to both nations have continued.

In fact, in its response to a September 2022 letter from Sen. Warren regarding the use of U.S. arms to commit possible war crimes in Yemen, the State Department acknowledged that "[s]ince 2012, the Department has not paused, reduced, or canceled any Foreign Military Sales cases or deliveries as a result of its investigations into reports that a foreign government used U.S.-origin or U.S.-provided defense articles for purposes other than those for which the items were furnished by the U.S. government." This is astonishing given how brutally Saudi Arabia and the UAE waged the war in Yemen, and the harshly repressive conduct of other U.S. arms recipients such as Egypt, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

The Biden administration, as well as future administrations, can and must do better. The administration's Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy, released in February of this year, indicates a potential shift in approach:

"[N]o arms transfer will be authorized where the United States assesses that it is more likely than not that the arms to be transferred will be used by the recipient to commit, facilitate the recipients’ commission of, or to aggravate risks that the recipient will commit: genocide; crimes against humanity; grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, including attacks intentionally directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such; or other serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, including serious acts of gender‑based violence or serious acts of violence against children."

Just as importantly, the new policy allows for the withdrawal of transfers that have already been approved, under certain circumstances:

"If a transfer had previously been authorized and circumstances have changed in ways that would materially increase the risk of any of the negative consequences listed above, the United States will reassess and, as appropriate, review options for ceasing the transfer of or support for a previous authorization."

If the above-cited policy had been in place — and faithfully implemented — from the outset of the Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen in 2015, it would have required an end to the supply of U.S. bombs and missiles that were being used in air strikes against civilian targets on a routine basis.

Promoting human rights is not only a moral imperative; it is also a security imperative. Nations that use U.S.-supplied weapons to repress or kill civilians sow instability, prolong conflicts, and create an atmosphere that makes it easier for extremist groups to recruit new converts.

Making U.S. arms and training programs more accountable, and withholding weapons when they are likely to cause harm, should become a foundation of U.S. policy. The revelations by the New York Times and the questions raised by Sens. Warren, Sanders, and Lee indicate how far we have to go to achieve those goals.

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