US Should Set Example on Limiting Arms Exports

This article was originally published in the Boston Globe on March 27, 2005.

It is understandable why the Bush administration is pleased about the European Union's decision to put off lifting its arms embargo on China until next year. Among other things, lifting the embargo has the potential to shift the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and to allow the further proliferation of weapons technology. However, the administration's ability to get Europe to change its mind permanently would be enhanced if the United States had a more enlightened arms sales policy. Like its predecessors, the Bush administration has adamantly resisted any attempts to curb America's own arms sales or to establish a code of conduct for these sales.

According to the Congressional Research Service, between 2000 and 2003 — the last year for which accurate figures are available — worldwide arms sales totaled $148 billion. The US share amounted to $76 billion, more than the rest of the world combined, a trade that is estimated to kill thousands of innocents annually.

And while the president criticizes Europe for wanting to sell arms to China, which still has an egregious human rights record, the United States consistently exports arms to some of the worst human rights offenders. In 2003 alone, 46.2 percent of US arms sales went to the developing world, many to regimes in volatile regions with poor human rights records.

For example, the Middle East: In the last four years, the United States sold more than $12 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait, none of which meets any criteria for democratic governance or has a sterling record on human rights.

In Saudi Arabia, according to the State Department 2004 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, security forces ''abuse detainees and prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and hold persons in incommunicado detention," the judicial system remains flawed, and the government restricts freedom of speech, press, religion, and movement, continues to ''discriminate against women, ethnic, and religious minorities and to impose strict limitations on worker rights."

Egypt is no better. The State Department called its human rights record poor, providing examples such as the torture of prisoners, arbitrary arrest and detention, and restrictions on freedom of press and assembly. The administration's case against the Europeans is weakened further because in the last four years it delivered $3 billion in arms to Israel, the second largest arms provider to China after Russia. It has never put pressure on Russia to reduce its arms sales to China.

Finally, there is evidence that US companies have been indirectly selling arms to China despite the embargo. According to Dieter Dettke of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 6.7 percent of Chinese dual-use imports come from the United States while only 2.7 percent come from Europe.

For more than a decade, many in the Congress have recognized the hypocrisy of US arms policy. Beginning in the early 1990s, Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and others on both sides of the aisle, including archconservative Republicans as Bob Dornan and Dana Rohrabacher of California, led the fight to introduce a Code of Conduct for US arms sales. The code would have established eligibility requirements for foreign governments to be considered for US military assistance and arms transfers. Among other things, governments would have had to promote democracy, respect human rights, not engage in certain acts of armed aggression, and fully participate in the UN Register of Conventional Arms.

In 1999, Congress passed the International Arms Sales Code of Conduct Act, which required the administration to begin negotiations on international agreement criteria for arms transfers. But the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, has made little progress. Instead, most of their efforts in this area appear to involve relaxing export controls.

The US role in the global arms trade is dangerous for international security and poses a threat to American people. Once US companies sell their arms abroad, the American people have little or no control over how they are used and transferred.

Our arms transfers have indirectly strengthened violent groups and problematic regimes in Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti, and Liberia, contributing to widespread human rights violations and instability. Many of the weapons used by the Taliban and Al Qaeda to fight US troops during military operations in Afghanistan were originally sold to insurgents by the United States in the 1980s.

For its own security the United States needs to summon the courage to establish a clear set of eligibility criteria for US arms sales and reinvigorate efforts to create international agreement.

As a first step, it should embrace the draft treaty developed by the Control Arms Campaign Coalition that would prohibit arms transfers where there is a high risk of weapons being used to violate international human rights or humanitarian law, or in contravention of the UN Charter's rules on nonaggression. The United Kingdom has already thrown its support behind such an initiative. Supporting the British position would enhance the administration's ability to convince the European Union not to sell the wrong things to China.

Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center For American Progress. Caroline Wadhams is a senior national security policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.