U.S. law prohibits security assistance, including arms sales, to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights. But the provision in question — Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act — has rarely been invoked in recent decades despite continued assistance to governments implicated in human rights abuses and likely violations of international humanitarian law.

Section 502B created a little-known process for Congress to enforce the prohibition, allowing the legislature to request a targeted report about human rights conditions in a particular country and then pass a joint resolution of disapproval continuing, restricting, or terminating security assistance.

The State Department’s human rights reports, mandated by Section 502B, regularly document gross violations of human rights by governments receiving U.S. security assistance. In some cases, repeated violations may amount to a consistent pattern, meaning assistance is prohibited under Section 502B. In spite of this reality, Congress has only used the process outlined in Section 502B once in nearly fifty years. The result is that few understand how this latent – but potent – oversight tool works.

This one-pager, “How U.S. Congress Can Use Section 502B,” provides an overview of key provisions in Section 502B and offers guidance to policymakers on how to use it.