This week, on January 14, 2020, Forum on the Arms Trade held its second annual conference entitled  “Beyond the Headlines: Redefining Responsibility in the Arms Trade,” which was co-sponsored by CIVIC, as well as the Arms Control Association, Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy, Win Without War, and the Stimson Center. The half-day event featured leading Congressional and civil society voices in conversation with audience participants, creating space for a deeper discussion of what responsible arms trade should look like moving forward.

Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA33) kicked off the event with an impassioned argument for the need for arms trade responsibility. He stressed the importance of creating an arms trade policy built on US values and called on his colleagues in Congress to consider how US arms can contribute to human rights problems and civilian harm in armed conflict. Rep. Lieu noted how US arms trade policy is too often “on autopilot” despite the known risks, and as a result Congress must take back war powers and arms sales authority.

Following his remarks, Representative Lieu sat down with CIVIC’s Dan Mahanty to interact with the audience and answer questions. Rep. Lieu expanded on how interest in and policies on Yemen started to shift in Congress and what this might mean for broader policies on arms sales, and how we need more transparency and awareness when it comes to arms sales – especially when selling arms to countries with high risk factors.

The conference then launched into the first panel of the day, “Going Beyond the Headlines – Understanding The Longer Term Dynamics of Today’s News,” moderated by Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center. The panel featured a variety of experts, including Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Scott Paul with Oxfam, and Dina Smeltz with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  Rachel framed the conversation around the consequences resulting from the US government not looking at past actions of countries – including the misuse of arms and civilian harm – in the consideration of arms sales. Scott elaborated on the Yemen conflict as a current example, where US manufactured weapons are destroying civilian infrastructures including schools and hospitals. He said that the US must learn from Yemen and ensure our weapons are used responsibly and not in violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. Adam further contextualized arms sales in the case of Latin America, highlighting how battling corruption is necessary to address the movement of weapons in the region.

Dina Smeltz laid out the American public’s opinions on arms sales in numbers. She mentioned that there is an impression in the US that the public is disinterested in preventing arms sales, but in reality the numbers show otherwise. In 2019, for example, 70 percent of Americans believed selling weapons to foreign countries actually makes the US less safe.

Jeff Abramson with Arms Control Association then introduced the second panel, “Redefining Responsibility in the Arms Trade,” with panelists Dan Mahanty of CIVIC, Kate Kizer of Win Without War, and Diana Ohlbaum with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Kate began by noting there is evidence that selling weapons to countries who conduct human rights violations does not build stability or security, and change needs to happen if stability and security are supposed to be US goals. She outlined three ways the US should redefine responsibility: 1) Think about if sending arms to foreign countries does more harm than good; 2) Enforce existing human rights laws and regulations; and 3) Use money from the Pentagon and reinvest in tools like the UN that actually achieve US goals like conflict prevention.

Diana reiterated issues with the current US arms trade framework, including the sale of arms to countries where they will likely be misused, and how these sales implicate the US in resulting abuses and damage reputation. She urged Congress to conduct risk assessments for all arms sales to reduce the possibility of arms going to places where they will likely be used in violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Diana also discussed the benefits of “flipping the script” on arms trade to favor intrinsic caution rather than intrinsic approval.

Dan Mahanty, Director of CIVIC’s US Program, issued a message to the current presidential candidates. He highlighted how too many people around the world experience US policy through arms exports, and the next president must recognize sales as consequential policies that can endanger foreign policy goals and damage perceptions abroad, not just bureaucratic transactions. Arms sales as foreign policy carries a lot of weight, and questions must be assessed like “Do they really increase security?” “Will they actually increase jobs?” and “What is the impact on human rights conduct?” According to Dan, a responsible arms sales policy would be highly selective, avoiding the sale of most weapons systems to countries with significant human rights problems or states at risk of violence and armed conflict.

The conference concluded with a screening of tv show Madam Secretary as part of the final panel, “Arms Trade in Popular Drama.” Colby Goodman of Transparency International Defence and Security introduced the show’s Executive Producer, David Grae, who weighed in on how television can use real issues like the complexities behind arms trade and dramatize them to make the information accessible to mass audiences. He was joined by experts Brittany Benowitz with the American Bar Association and Mandy Smithberger with the Straus Military Reform Project.

Throughout the entire conference, during each panel and within many of the remarks, one thing was made clear: the current way the US handles arms trade is neither effective nor in our best interest. An increase in transparency when it comes to arms sales is desired and would demonstrate a positive step towards “redefining responsibility” in the arms sales environment – one where the US is a leader in ensuring arms sales are conducted with the values of human rights and civilian protection at the forefront.

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