Human Rights Priorities: Assessing the Biden Administration’s First 100 Days

By Diane Bernabei, Jasmeet Sidhu, Nate Smith, and Susan Waltz, Amnesty International USA

In its first hundred days, the Biden Administration has missed a number of opportunities to make meaningful reforms in arms trade policy to help protect human rights around the world, as well as in the United States. While any respite from the aggressively dangerous recklessness of the Trump Administration is welcome, human rights activists must not become complacent: President Biden has not yet reversed the previous administration’s cruel policy bringing landmines back into the U.S. military’s arsenal; the Trump administration’s “unsigning” of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is still in effect, and the U.S. is still supplying weapons to human rights abusers around the world.

Meanwhile, domestically, during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. gun sales surged exponentially, tens of thousands occurring without a background check, and many cities reported increased shootings. Thus far in 2021, the U.S. has seen 169 mass shootings, more than 14,000 gun-related deaths, over 100 children and 300 teens killed by guns, and we aren’t even half-way through the year. This blog will lay out several easily-achievable policy changes that should have already occurred, as well as offer suggestions for next steps.

Landmines

One of the most impactful actions that the administration’s Department of Defense can take right away is to reverse the Trump administration’s policy on landmines. Issued in January of 2020, the previous policy on landmines, which is still in effect, allows for the production, acquisition and use of anti-personnel landmines. Landmines are indiscriminate weapons that take a disproportionate toll on civilian life. The vast majority of landmine-use victims — 80%, according to the latest Landmine Monitor report — are civilians, with children accounting for almost half (43%) of civilian casualties. Their indiscriminate nature and the disproportionate effect on civilians make landmines incompatible with international humanitarian law, and makes current U.S. on landmines policy increasingly out of step with the international community and the U.S.’s closest allies, and is in direct contradiction of what being a global leader on human rights means in practice.

In February 2020, then candidate Biden promised to “promptly roll back” the “deeply misguided decision” by the Trump administration to lift restrictions on landmine use. However, we have not seen much action on this front. While Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield reiterated an intention to roll-back this policy and stated the previous policy was under review, there has been no action on landmine use since her remarks on April 8th at the UN Security Council’s meeting on Mine Action. The Biden administration must swiftly replace this policy with one that adheres to the provisions of the Mine Ban Treaty, to which 164 countries, including every other member of NATO, are States party. While not a signatory, the U.S. has functionally adhered to key provisions of the Mine Ban Treaty by not using, producing, or transferring antipersonnel mines. President Biden should issue a presidential policy directive to return to this policy position while the administration works to join the Treaty.

Arms Trade Treaty

Another clear step this administration must take to prioritize human rights and civilian protection is to reaffirm its signature of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an agreement that prohibits transfers of weapons that lead to war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity, and that bars weapons shipments to countries under UN arms embargoes. Globally, armed violence kills more than half a million people every year, and for every person who is killed, thousands more are injured, tortured or otherwise abused, kidnapped at gun-point or forced to flee their homes and communities. The unregulated proliferation of small arms and light weapons contributes to a variety of types of violence ranging from armed conflict, to terrorism, to repressive state behavior, to gang violence and domestic abuse.

The ATT is the only existing international agreement that establishes common standards for the export and transfer of conventional weapons, parts and components, and ammunition. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the treaty in June 2012. In April 2019, however, former President Trump made a public display of “un-signing” the treaty at an NRA convention, where he used misguided NRA rhetoric to claim the treaty infringes on Second Amendment rights.

It is worth stating plainly first, that the treaty does not apply to domestic transfers and in fact explicitly recognizes the rights of states to regulate their own internal gun sales. It is also worth making clear that there is no legal mechanism for unsigning a treaty once it enters into force (which the ATT did in December 2014). The Biden administration must undo the Trump administration’s actions and make clear the United States’ intention to abide by the treaty and stand by responsible arms export policies, which is as simple as sending a letter to the United Nations saying so.

Export Controls

There is also urgent work to be done on firearms export regulations. In 2020 the Trump Administration loosened regulations on the export of semi-automatic and non-automatic firearms, and in the process severely damaged the human rights oversight mechanisms that had applied to these weapons. As defense articles on the U.S. Munitions List, these small but deadly weapons had been subject to a range of laws that require human rights scrutiny of proposed transfers, a multi-step registration and licensing procedure for commercial exporters, and strict end user control provisions. The new rule did away with purchase orders and allowed exporters to combine multiple transactions on a single, multi-year license application. It promised to create more export opportunities, and so it did. In April 2020, just a month after the new rule went into effect, some 51,000 duly licensed exports of U.S. semi-automatic pistols were delivered to Mexico, more than twice as many as in the previous two years combined. And a year later, in February 2021, twelve agents armed with Sig Sauer rifles — of the sort exported from the U.S. — were charged with murdering 19 people, mostly Guatemalan immigrants, in Carmargo, Tamaulipas.

Ironically, restrictions on the import of these deadly weapons remain in place, and it should not be easier to export than to import these weapons. The solution is to recognize high powered rifles and semi-automatic handguns for the assault weapons they are by restoring them to the U.S. Munitions List. One immediate act of good faith toward this end would be for the Biden Administration to issue a simple regulatory change and make these firearms explicitly subject to the crime controls on the Commerce Control List, where proposed export packages would at least receive additional human rights screening.

The above steps should be taken immediately. In addition, here are a few more important policy recommendations for the Biden Administration moving into 2021:

  • Require a human rights risk assessment of all currently-planned arms transfers. The State Department should conduct an assessment of the risks that the equipment could contribute to human rights abuses and violations of International Humanitarian Law.
  • Strengthen end-use monitoring to include human rights, corruption, and civilian harm. President Biden should make clear that using U.S.-origin arms for human rights abuses is a violation under the Arms Export Control Act. The State Department should develop end-use monitoring programs that track the actual use of U.S.-origin items, including through enhancement of the Blue Lantern, Golden Sentry and other programs.
  • Torture Trade. Amnesty has recently issued a report on the trade in law enforcement equipment (including tear gas and restraints) and we are advocating for global regulations to close loopholes that permit misuse.

Gun Control in the United States

In addition to the need for the Biden administration to take urgent action to address the irresponsible and underregulated global arms trade and end U.S. practices that are contributing to it, the administration must take on the issue of gun violence in the United States, which is finally being recognized as the health and human rights crisis that it is.

While legislation to expand background checks and lessen default gun sales passed the House in March, the bills have not yet made progress in the Senate. It has been more than 27 years since Congress has taken action to pass meaningful laws to address gun violence. After the shooting of ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado on March 22nd, and the massacre of eight people at numerous Asian-owned businesses in Ackworth, Georgia on March 16th, the Biden Administration took numerous actions related to gun violence prevention:

  • The Justice Department will issue a ruling to stop the proliferation of “ghost guns” that can be manufactured from parts and are untraceable.
  • The Justice Department will issue a rule to clarify that devices like stabilizing braces that turn pistols into short-barrel rifles be subject to the requirements of the National Firearms Act.
  • The Justice Department will publish model “red flag” legislation for states allowing family members or law enforcement to petition for a court order temporarily barring people in crisis from accessing firearms if they present a danger to themselves or others.
  • The Administration is investing in evidence-based community violence interventions by: proposing a $5 billion investment over eight years to support community violence intervention programs; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is organizing a webinar and toolkit to educate states on how they can use Medicaid to reimburse certain community violence intervention programs, like Hospital-Based Violence Interventions; and five federal agencies are making changes to 26 different programs to direct vital support to community violence intervention programs as quickly as possible.
  • The Justice Department will issue an annual report on firearms trafficking.
  • The President will nominate David Chipman to serve as Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Chipman served at ATF for 25 years and now works to advance common sense gun safety laws.

These actions will go a long way in addressing gun violence domestically, but without congressional action, gun violence will continue to be an epidemic nationwide. It remains to be seen whether the funding allocated for gun violence prevention programs addressing the most impacted areas, where communities of color face disproportionate rates of gun homicides, will pass through the appropriations process, but it is heartening to see this administration prioritize U.S. gun violence. When President Biden made his speech at the Rose Garden unveiling these actions, he mentioned the shooting of Greg Jackson, a young Black man, an Obama campaign organizer, who has led advocacy work on behalf of Black and Brown communities facing disparate rates of gun violence. What the President failed to mention was that Greg was shot just a few blocks away from the White House, where they were standing that day. Every day, in cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, and too many others, we lose people to guns. With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has almost half of the world’s civilian-owned guns. In the face of the sheer volume of and easy access to guns, the U.S. government has clear obligations to respect, protect and fulfil peoples’ human rights, including the rights to life, security of person, and freedom from discrimination. It remains to be seen whether those obligations will be met.

Small arms and light weapons are a critical enabler and augmentor of human rights abuses and conflict. Their role in conflict is often eclipsed by other factors that may underpin a conflict, and the argument that “it is not the weapons but the people who wield them who are the problem” is one we hear all too often. The Biden administration and the United States must reject this argument and be both the role model for responsible arms policies and the political and diplomatic force that persuades other governments to prevent the spread of conventional weapons.

The Trump administration’s policy changes on U.S. arms policy and its refusal to act on domestic gun control resulted in a more dangerous world and an appalling loss of lives. While it is true that some of these policies will require activating a significant chunk of the enormous Federal bureaucracy and taking on complicated issues, other actions are not complicated to enact and depend almost solely on the will of our new leaders.

As U.S.-based activists, AIUSA’s military, security and police transfers specialists endeavour to end gun violence at home and to stop exporting it around the world. We will be monitoring the administration’s progress on these issues.