How the Proposal to Loosen Arms Export Regulations Threatens Human Rights

By Nate Smith, Chair of the Military, Security and Police Transfers Thematic Group at Amnesty International USA

Amnesty International USA recently submitted a public comment regarding a set of proposed rule changes regarding the export of firearms from the US around the world. While these changes are somewhat obscure and bureaucratic, they pose very concrete and real risks to human rights and peace efforts around the world and to national security here in the US. Below is a brief overview of the changes and their potential impact as well as immediate actions you can take to oppose them.

A tale of two lists

First, let’s summarize the changes. The short version is as follows: the export of weapons (and items that may be used as weapons, or to make weapons) is divided into two lists: the USML (US Munitions List) and the Commerce Control List (CCL). The former is for items whose use is primarily military — things like tanks, missiles, and yes, firearms. The latter is for “dual-use” items — things like avionics and navigation technology, certain chemicals, equipment for materials manufacturing, and so on.

For items on the USML, there are an accompanying set of laws and regulations to ensure that these items don’t fall into the wrong hands: laws regarding exporter registration, controls on brokering, end-use certification and checks, and human rights checks, to name a few. Traditionally, the US has boasted the “gold standard” with regard to these types of checks — at least in principle. In practice, of course, there have been a number of ill-advised and even irresponsible arms deals conducted by the US government — not least the ongoing support of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen. But there have been plenty of examples of these laws helping to bring to light and halt other irresponsible transfers. When it comes to not arming criminals and repressive regimes, every little bit helps.

The Commerce Control List, on the other hand, is meant for items that are not as easily diverted to the black market as firearms. It’s meant for things like telecommunications equipment or encryption algorithms, not AK-47s. The requirements currently imposed by law on USML items like firearms or artillery pieces — the US’ vaunted “gold standard” — do not apply to the Commerce List. But that’s all about to change.

The proposal at hand involves moving a number of dangerous items, including semi-automatic firearms, from the USML to the CCL. Amnesty USA is opposing some of these proposed changes on the grounds that the presence or absence of an item (in this case, a semi-automatic firearm) on the USML dramatically changes which other laws apply to that item. Changes of this nature affect everything from Congressional reporting to controls on brokering to end-use monitoring and even the potential for 3D printing of dangerous weapons by anyone in their own home.

Solving problems…or creating them?

From the streets of Mexico to the Turkish security forces, the world has seen no shortage of human rights abuses committed using guns. The proposed changes reduce oversight on this profoundly dangerous business — but why?

The answer is obvious: this dangerous business is also hugely profitable. Arms industry lobbyists have been pushing to relax export regulations for years, and they’re close to seeing a major victory with these changes. Criminals, those who would commit acts of terror and repressive governments around the world constitute a major market segment for arms manufacturers. But as it stands, the industry feels that there are too many bureaucratic hurdles to arming the most dangerous people around the world (unsurprisingly, they feel similarly about the domestic market). They’ve found a friend in the Trump administration.

What now?

NGOs and policy experts are ringing the alarm about the proposed changes to Categories I-III of the USML. One of the biggest concerns has to do with transparency: in the past, the requirement that the Department of State notify Congress of arms sales of a certain size ($1m or more) has shed much-needed daylight on some very sketchy deals. This kind of reporting would evaporate under the proposed rules — depriving Congress (and the broader public) of access to critical information and undermining oversight.

This battle is more in the weeds and wonky than an effort to prevent a specific arms transfer (say, opposing continued bomb sales to Saudi Arabia) might be. There’s not a specific bad actor whose prior crimes we can point to, or a particular deal’s terrible consequences to which we might draw attention. But this rule change has the potential to dramatically reduce the broader public’s ability to detect a dangerous arms transfer at all — and you can’t rally around to prevent something you didn’t know was taking place. And this is just one of a huge number of potentially dire consequences for the notion of carefully vetting who the US is arming if these changes go forward.

In addition, these proposed changes could undermine public safety and well-being in the US. These proposed changes make it easier for weapons to flow with little or no oversight into the international market and back into the US, further increasing the likelihood of greater firearm violence, accidents and misuse in our country.

Regulatory changes like this can have far-reaching and deadly consequences. Guns have a long shelf life — a 20-year-old AK-47 can kill just as easily as a brand-new one. The effects of these proposed changes will be similarly long-lasting, for much the same reason.

What you can do to oppose these proposed changes

The public needs to make this an issue — we can’t let these changes pass quietly under the cover of a seemingly daily barrage of crazy news.

“Make your voice heard: tell the State Department that semi-automatic firearms should remain on the US Munitions List” with link

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