Biden’s new weapons sales strategy puts more emphasis on human rights

Last updated on February 23, 2023

The Biden administration unveiled a new policy for transferring or selling arms to foreign countries that puts more weight on protecting human rights, in theory setting a lower bar for denying sales.

The Conventional Arms Transfer Policy was last updated in 2018 under the Trump administration, and it placed an explicit emphasis on the economic benefits of selling more military equipment overseas.

At issue is whether the U.S. thinks the customer nation will use the weapons on its own population. Under the old standard, the U.S. had to have actual knowledge that a government would use the weapons to harm civilians. Now, if the U.S. determines a country would “more likely than not” harm its population, a sale could be denied, a senior State Department official told reporters.

The decades-old rule that the U.S. would not use countries’ past behavior against them when deciding to sell has also been abandoned.

“It’s not that we will only decide against arms transfers if they meet that new lower bar of ‘more likely than not,’” said the official, who asked not to be named in order to discuss the policy ahead of its release. “We are going to be looking at and making risk assessments on every arms transfer on a case-by-case basis.”

The official declined to go into details when asked about specific countries, including whether those with long histories of human rights abuses such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Nigeria would be in jeopardy.

The Biden administration had already tweaked its arms sales policy by refusing to sell Saudi Arabia offensive missiles and bombs after the regime used U.S. weapons to strike civilian targets in its war in Yemen.

Sales of defense weapons to Riyadh continue, however, including air defense and air-to-air missiles.

The new strategy also lays out several areas including competitive financing, exportability, technology security and working with the defense industry to sell equipment not used by the U.S. military.

The government wants to ensure that “even if the United States military is not procuring a certain system, that we can be able to identify the needs of our partners and work with industry to be able to act,” the official said.

“If you can use a country’s past behavior as an indicator for future behavior, that’s a win because the Trump administration said you couldn’t do that,” said Rachel Stohl, director of the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center.

Yet a strategy paper isn’t an end in itself, Stohl added.

“The actual implementation of this is going to be a real test, not what’s on the piece of paper,” she said.