Panel Briefing: ‘Flipping the Script’ on US Arms Sales



The United States remains by far the largest exporter of weapons in the world, oftentimes sending weapons to countries with high levels of human rights violations, or those involved in conflicts with high civilian casualties and implicating the US in foreign wars. While Congress has oftentimes pushed back on certain sales, it has never successfully blocked an arms sale via its best understood mechanism–a joint resolution of disapproval. Within our current legal framework, Congress’s ability to provide meaningful oversight and accountability of US arms exports abroad is severely limited.

While there are multiple avenues for reform, advocates and members of Congress have proposed changes to the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) that would require Congress to affirmatively authorize foreign military sales and direct commercial sales, thereby “flipping the script” and providing a meaningful check and balance to the arms export process.

In this panel, experts will discuss and answers questions on: existing laws governing US arms sales, their gaps and limitations; the negative impacts of US arms sales policies and why reform is needed; how a “flip the script” reform would work and its effects; and recent efforts to introduce “flip the script” legislation in Congress, such as the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act (NSRAA) and other legislation.

Panelists include:

  • Jeff Abramson – Director, Forum on the Arms Trade (moderator)
  • Diana Ohlbaum – Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)
  • Annie Shiel –  United States Senior Advisor, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)
  • Raed Jarrar – Advocacy Director, Democracy for the Arab World Now

Further reading and resources on the issue:

Global arms trade falls slightly, but imports to Europe, East Asia and Oceania rise – SIPRI report

  • “The United States accounted for 39 percent of all major arms exports from 2017-2021, more than twice Russia’s 19 percent, and a greater share than the 32 percent of exports it accounted for from 2012-2016.  China decreased by 31% (to now 4.6 percent of global).”

“On the Front Lines: Conflict zones and U.S. Arms Exports,” by Jennifer Erickson (World Peace Foundation, March 23, 2022).

  • “Examination of U.S. arms transfers into conflict, with case studies Libya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Generally finds that the president can act as (so far) he wants, with little restraint despite laws that would appear to provide it. U.S. continues arms trade relationships in many cases.”

UMD report (University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation (PPC)

  • “bipartisan majorities (61%, Republicans 56%, Democrats 68%, independents 61%) favor requiring that Congress actively approve arms sales over $14 million, giving Congress the power to stop arms sales with a simple majority not subject to a presidential veto.”

‘With Great Power’: Modifying US Arms Sales to Reduce Civilian Harm (On executive branch policies and practices)

Great Responsibility: A Legislative Reform Agenda for U.S. Arms Transfers and Civilian Harm (On legislative gaps)

Human Rights, Civilian Harm, and Arms Sales: A Primer on U.S. Law and Policy (Explainer on 502B and other underutilized laws)

Time to flip the script on congressional arms sales powers (op-ed on why we need to flip the script) 

The cost of violence to the global economy was estimated by IEP to be $14.8 trillion or 12.4 per cent of global gross domestic product.

SDG 16: Commitment to Global Peace has Never Been Greater

Global total for Official Development Assistance from all donors was $161.2 billion in 2020.

Business as usual? Arms sales of SIPRI Top 100 arms companies continue to grow amid pandemic

  • Global total sales of arms and military services by the industry’s 100 largest companies totaled $531 billion in 2020.

Relevant legislation:

National Security Powers Act & National Security Reforms and Accountability Act, which would “flip the script” on US arms transfers.

SAFEGUARD Act: would add human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) to terms of sale, prohibit transfers to countries that have committed genocide or violated IHL, add arms tranfers to the Leahy law, and enhance Congressional oversight for a subset of sales based on country conditions.

Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act: would prohibit arms sales and other forms of security assistance to countries determined to have committed specified acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, and create Commission on Atrocity Accountability and Human Rights to suggest countries for sanction and monitor human rights.

Values in Arms Export Act: would create Human Rights and Law of War Oversight Board, create tiered system to restrict and ban sales to “countries of concern” based on human rights and IHL, and add robust monitoring and verification.