The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Making human rights a condition for arms sales is smart foreign policy

Getty Images

In the past few years we’ve seen U.S.-made planes and weapons bomb children in Yemen; gross violations of human rights by recipients of U.S. arms in places such as Cameroon and Nigeria; tear gas canisters labeled “made in the USA” fired at pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; and a steady stream of American guns fueling homicide crises in Jamaica and Central America — to name just a few. And yet, each renewed call for conditioning arms sales on human rights is met with a predictable response from the government and arms industry: If we make it harder to buy U.S. weapons, foreign governments will simply turn to Russia and China for their arms, and we’ll have lost the economic benefit and political influence over the recipient country. 

It’s a claim so common it’s often treated as fact. But given what is at stake — the human lives at risk and America’s reputation — perhaps we too rarely stop to ask whether these arguments actually are true. And if they are, does it matter?

Evaluating the claim that weapons-purchasing countries would shift to Russia or China in the face of basic human rights conditions is difficult because it’s largely untested; the U.S. rarely makes its arms sales decisions on the basis of human rights concerns. Despite the Leahy Laws, which prohibit U.S. security assistance to foreign security force units that have violated human rights, the State Department doesn’t currently vet arms recipients for human rights abuses. Meanwhile, caught between a powerful arms export lobby and relatively weak legislative authority, Congress has never successfully blocked an arms sale on the basis of human rights concerns — nor has it often tried.  

Although countries that purchase American weapons often threaten to pivot to Russia and China, they’re not likely to follow through. Most countries would much rather purchase major arms and weapons systems from the United States for a number of reasons, including the quality of U.S. arms, the desire for interoperability with U.S. systems, and the U.S. government’s “total package” approach of pairing equipment or systems with sophisticated training and maintenance. 

For clients with a record of buying American, switching suppliers is easier said than done. For example, to follow through on his threat to increase Russian and Chinese arms purchases in response to Obama-era restrictions over extrajudicial killings, Philippine President Duterte would need to first restructure the military of the Philippines, which is dependent on interoperable U.S. systems. 

Even when countries do turn elsewhere for arms, it’s often hard to determine why. Many countries have a history of purchasing arms from different suppliers because of diversification and strategic bidding. When the U.S. denies sales for certain higher-risk arms, it usually continues to serve as the provider of choice for others. And when buyers do turn to Russia or China in the face of U.S. restrictions, it’s usually not a perfect substitute. For example, the anti-aircraft system Cameroon currently seeks from Russia won’t replace the defender boats, armored vehicles and aircraft that the U.S. withheld because of Cameroonian human rights abuses.

Perhaps more importantly, if countries subject to human rights conditions did start buying from Russia and China, the data suggest it would have little adverse impact on U.S. economic interests. This is because demand for U.S.-made weapons and systems is strong. Over the past decade, the gap between the U.S. and Russia, the world’s two largest arms exporters, has widened: the U.S. market share increased from 30 percent to 36 percent, while Russia’s share shrank by around one-fifth. China comes in fifth with a meager 5.5 percent share. 

Further, for U.S. companies, imposing human rights conditions would impact a small minority of sales. Two of the three top U.S arms exporters earn most of their revenue (about 70 percent) from domestic U.S. government contracts, which would not be affected by arms export policies. And of this small number of foreign exports, even fewer would be subject to human rights conditions. 

An analysis of SIPRI arms transfers data shows that most U.S. arms sales go to democratic, rights-respecting allies. For example, not including Saudi Arabia, 71 percent of arms transfers in 2018 went to countries designated “free” by Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index. Sales to the Philippines, Cameroon and Nigeria — three recipients of U.S. security assistance that recently made headlines for human rights abuses — didn’t make up even half of a percent of all 2018 U.S. arms sales.

Contrary to what President Trump and weapons manufacturers would have you believe, the arms industry contributes little to job growth. Even if restrictions on arms transfers did reduce total revenue to certain weapons manufacturers, the impact on the U.S. economy and the industrial base would be marginal. Research by the Security Assistance Monitor found that the arms industry employs just two-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. labor force. The number is likely even smaller as a result of co-production and offset agreements, in which U.S. companies agree to produce purchased weapons systems in the recipient nation or invest in the economy of the purchasing country to “offset” the costs of the purchase. Research also shows that job creation through defense spending lags behind comparable investments in clean energy, infrastructure, education and health care.

Policymakers who are willing to concede the economic argument call upon another popular Washington trope to rationalize problematic sales. Arms sales, the argument goes, provide American policymakers the ability to shape the pursuits, preferences and even human rights conduct of our partners. But those suggesting that arms sales accrue meaningful political influence over the buyers of American hardware should take another look at the evidence. 

Arms sales alone have a spotty track record of garnering influence. As the CATO Institute point out, arms sales have provided little leverage to prevent Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Indonesia and Morocco from invading their neighbors, or reigning in human rights abuses by Gulf states and others. Instead, campaigns to influence partner behavior have been most successful when backed by positive and punitive foreign policy levers, including security force training, long-term institution building, sanctions and high-level diplomatic messaging.

Alternatively, tying arms sales to human rights conditions benefits U.S. national security in a number of ways. First, making the connection between rights-respecting behavior and the provision of equipment is fundamental to building responsible and accountable security partners capable of working with U.S. forces to promote shared interests. Denying arms to abusive security forces ensures that U.S. weapons don’t exacerbate grievances that fuel violent extremism. Research shows that the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab take advantage of grievances around security force abuses to gain support in communities and recruit members — suggesting that past restrictions on arms to Cameroon, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia were the smart move.

Conditioning arms sales based on countries’ human rights records also ensures that the United States is not complicit in human rights abuses or war crimes. And as noted by security cooperation experts at CSIS and the Center for a New American Security, human rights provisions signal that American values and international norms play a central role in U.S. foreign policy, and that abusive behavior will not be tolerated. In short, conditioning arms sales on responsible conduct moves beyond rhetoric to smart foreign policy that reflects American values.

Far too many people around the world know “Made in the USA” as the label on a tear gas canister after a protest, the remnants of a missile that destroyed their home, or the stamp on the stock of a gun that took the life of a loved one. It’s time for Congress and the American public to start asking hard questions of those who say it’s all worth it.

Annie Shiel is the Protection Innovation Fellow with the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Stanford University. She spent three years at the U.S. Department of State, where she worked as a policy adviser in the Office of Security and Human Rights. Follow her on Twitter @annieshiel.

Tags China Donald Trump Human rights Leahy Law Russia weapons

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video