This is the eighth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2018 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
Further under Trump, drone use/air strikes have dramatically increased in number and/or in numbers of civilians harmed. The Defense Department has backed away from a policy that would have barred the use of certain cluster munitions, in particular older ones with an awful record for humanitarian harm. The administration also appears set to make it easier to sell small arms by transferring their control to the Commerce Department, completing the last steps of a controversial export reform initiative. In December, the United States abstained on the annual UN General Assembly resolution supporting the ATT, saying during First Committee that it was reviewing its policy. These and other indicators suggest that US arms use and trade, as well as any eventual new US conventional arms transfer policy, will simply remove the concept of restraint and further undermine commitment to and promotion of human rights.
This is an admittedly bleak initial picture, but there are many places the world can and should look for leadership outside of a US administration espousing an “America First” world view. Perhaps surprisingly, the first place to look is the US Congress. The close 47-53 Senate vote in June in opposition to the PGM sale to Saudi Arabia is an indicator that the Senate could take a more proactive role, especially if the rumored additional $7 billion in PGM sales come before it. Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy partnered on that work and together or separately merit watching in 2018. So too does Republican Senator Todd Young, especially in relation to the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy reacted quickly to the cluster munition policy reversal, and along with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin have identified the need for Congressional involvement in any changes that would send small arms to Commerce control. A number of members of the House of Representatives have also taken up US weapons sales and use. A short list includes Democrats Ro Khanna, Mark Pocan and Republican Walter Jones, who co-wrote a New York Times oped critical of US support to Saudi Arabia, as well as Republican Justin Amash, and Democrat Ted Lieu, who has long expressed concerned about potential US complicity in war crimes.
Arming Saudi Arabia, or rather a commitment not to do so is also an appropriate litmus test on international leadership as the Saudi-led coalition continues to use weapons to the detriment of civilians in Yemen. In 2017, the European Parliament again called for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia -- a call not heeded by suppliers such as France and the United Kingdom, but one other European countries can and do support. Related, Sweden’s pending “democracy criterion” in arms sales is worth watching for an impact nationally and regionally. So too is Japan’s leadership of the Arms Trade Treaty for the 2018 Conference of States Parties, where thus far countries have frustratingly refused to directly address the inconsistency of arming the Saudis.
The recent conclusion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the international civil society coalition that fought hard for the treaty (ICAN), draws global attention to the truth that leadership need not come from the normal “big players.” Those countries, led by the permanent five members of the Security Council (P5), tend to put traditional state-centered security over the needs of individuals (aka human security). But human security is at the heart of the nuclear ban treaty and a host of other successful treaties and initiatives broadly classified as “humanitarian disarmament.” On key treaties in this realm, Nicaragua is taking on the presidency of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Afghanistan will have leadership of the Mine Ban Treaty. They have the potential to bring a different type of leadership to arms-related issues in 2018. So too do some of the countries that were at the heart of the nuclear ban treaty, such as Mexico and New Zealand, who were also progressive voices during the Arms Trade Treaty negotiation.
The Nobel Peace Prize also reminds us that civil society campaigns play a critical role. In 2018, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots will continue calling for all countries to ban the development of fully autonomous weapons (“killer robots”). The countries participating in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) working group may choose that path, which a growing number (22) are supporting. Leading roboticists and artificial intelligence experts are banding together with that message and writing letters to governments, spurring national parliamentary debates. In another campaign, the International Network on Explosive Weapons is helping to build momentum to address and end the practice of using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. These weapons are particularly devastating to civilians and civilian infrastructure, causing both immediate harm at the time of use and ongoing suffering from the disruption of economic and social activity.
Members of industry and the financial sector will also have the opportunity to display leadership. Late in 2016, German arms manufacturer Heckler and Koch announced that it would no longer sell weapons to undemocratic and corrupt countries. More recently in Japan, four banks and insurance companies recently announced that they would ban investments in cluster munition producers, joining a growing group that have made similar commitments in other countries.
While the future is always difficult to predict, in 2018 it would be wise to look outside the White House for leadership on proper restraint in the use and sale of weapons – without which, we can unfortunately foresee new suffering by civilians and the undermining of their human rights.
Jeff Abramson is a non-resident senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.