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08/09/2021 United States (International Christian Concern) – Reuters reports that the Biden administration is preparing to update the United States’ Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy. Senior officials have briefed congressional staff on the changes, which are said to emphasize human rights in the evaluation of potential arms sales to other countries and potentially make it harder for known human rights offenders to obtain U.S.-manufactured arms.

The Trump administration updated Obama-era CAT policy to emphasize economic benefit to U.S. manufacturers and the need to reduce risk to civilians, but otherwise the two policies were largely the same. Both identified five criteria by which the Departments of State and Defense should jointly evaluate arms transfers. However, these criteria—national security, economic security, relationship with allies, human rights, and nonproliferation—are loosely defined and do not place hard restrictions on potential deals.

Historically, CAT policies do not require State and DOD to weigh these criteria in any particular way or to turn down arms deals based on the findings of any specific category including human rights. In other words, though human rights are a factor in considering a potential arms sale it is not a critical one and there is not a level of human rights concerns at which a transfer would have to be called off under CAT.

Officials at State reported to the Government Accountability Office in a 2019 that their recommendations against certain arms deals based on human rights concerns are sometimes not followed, though they also indicated that they believed their concerns were considered.

Details of Biden’s proposed changes have not yet been released. Reuters reports that a formal unveiling of the changes may come as soon as September. The renewed emphasis on human rights, if proposed in the first place, is unlikely to impact the sale of large equipment such as fighter jets, instead focusing on the sale of small weapons such as rifles, according to a congressional aide who spoke to Reuters.

Human rights observers have long criticized the sale of arms to human rights abusers around the world. The Biden administration, though it has emphasized the importance of human rights in foreign policy, has approved the sale of arms to Egypt and the Philippines, both countries with serious human rights and religious freedom issues.

Seen as a statement of support and trust, arms sales have long been used by the U.S. and others as a tool of foreign policy. Unfortunately, though, officials have often failed to use this tool to advance human rights.

The Biden administration would do well to update CAT to impose stricter requirements on State and DOD as they consider potential arms sales. While the current requirement that they consider human rights is a step in the right direction, CAT’s lack of standards by which a deal might be disqualified is a serious issue and should be addressed as Biden puts his spin on CAT.

For interviews, please contact Addison Parker: [email protected].