Home News Gaza war puts new pressure on U.S. arms transfer policy

Gaza war puts new pressure on U.S. arms transfer policy

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Last February, President Biden changed the criteria for the United States to cut off the supply of wartime weapons that harm civilians to foreign militaries.

under new regulations arms transfer policyBiden said countries that are “more likely” to use U.S. weapons to violate international law or human rights should not receive them. Previously, U.S. officials were required to show “actual knowledge” of such violations, a higher threshold.

A few months later, in August, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken issued a directive instructing State Department officials abroad to investigate incidents in which foreign forces used U.S. weapons to harm civilians and recommend action that could include halting weapons deliveries. Responses.

Two months later, Hamas attacked Israel, triggering the Gaza war and embroiling Biden and Blinken in a heated global debate over how Israel uses U.S. weapons. For Biden’s critics, his staunch refusal to restrict arms shipments to Israel runs counter to those initiatives and seriously undermines his goal of positioning the United States as a protector of civilians in wartime.

His policies face a new test this week. Israel has threatened to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, despite Biden’s firm opposition. The Biden administration plans to submit a report to Congress this week assessing whether it trusts Israeli assurances that it uses U.S. weapons in compliance with U.S. and international law.

Biden could limit weapons deliveries if the report finds Israel violated the law. Eighty-eight House Democrats wrote to Biden last week questioning the credibility of Israel’s assurances and urging him to “take all possible steps to prevent further humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.”

When the Biden administration released these initiatives last year — the White House’s conventional arms transfer policy and the State Department’s guidance on responding to civilian harm incidents — officials described them as part of a new emphasis on human rights in U.S. foreign policy and an inversion of lower priorities. upgrade. During the Trump administration.

“Part of the reason is to sharply separate the role of the United States in the world under Biden from the role of the United States under Trump,” said Sarah Magoon, foreign policy director at the Open Society Foundations.

At the time, the Biden administration was focused on other countries, including Saudi Arabia, people familiar with the matter said. U.S. armed military operations In Yemen, thousands of civilians have been killed and a humanitarian nightmare has been created.

In February 2021, in one of his first major actions as president, Mr. Biden even Stop shipping offensive weapons The Saudis are fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. “This war must end,” he said. Mr. Biden has since resumed deliveries.

Within months, Hamas-led attacks would trigger a war that has drawn intense scrutiny of Israel’s dependence on Israel. US$3.8 billion in annual military aidincluding bombs and ammunition used in Gaza.

But critics say Biden is making political decisions that ignore U.S. law and his own administration’s directives on Israel.

“In reality, this may be a policy call from the White House, but that’s not the role it should play,” said Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group who spent ten years in the State Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Year. Until 2021. “American law should apply. If the outcome is something you don’t like, you’re out of luck.”

The law originated in the 1970s, amid growing concerns about human rights abuses by some of America’s Cold War allies and anger among some members of Congress that the Nixon and Ford administrations gave them no notice before arming several Middle Eastern countries.

Leading the charge was Minnesota’s liberal Democratic Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Complaint 1976 The American people “have reason to be concerned about a highly secretive national policy that appears to disregard our long-term security interests in a stable, more democratic world.”

Humphrey pushed for legislation declaring that the United States could not provide military assistance to any foreign government that “continually and grossly violates internationally recognized human rights.” Congress defined these violations as including “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” arbitrary detention and “other flagrant deprivation of the rights to life, liberty, or security of the person.”

Experts interpret the last clause to include elements such as indiscriminate bombing or disproportionate civilian casualties. 2017 American Bar Association Report The study, which focused on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, found that “serious violations of international humanitarian law and resulting loss of civilian life” qualify.

International humanitarian law is often based on the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements, which call for the protection of civilians in war and prohibit attacks on medical facilities and personnel.

U.S. law from the 1970s also gave the president the power to exempt recipients of weapons from punishment on the grounds of urgent national security interests.

Experts say the U.S. government generally lacks clear procedures for assessing whether troops receiving U.S. weapons are breaking the law. Nor can it closely monitor how the weapons are used, experts say.

Ms. Magoon, a former senior aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cannot recall a time when the United States withheld foreign military aid because of human rights violations.

The report submitted by the administration this week is the product of increased pressure from congressional Democrats. In February, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., drafted a bill invoking a 1995 law that bars the U.S. from providing supplies to any country that blocks U.S. humanitarian aid. assistance. Many aid groups and legal experts have accused Israel of deliberately blocking the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Gaza, including aid from the United States; Israel blames Hamas and logistical problems for the shortages.

As Mr. Van Hollen’s amendment began to gain support among Democrats, the White House began to take action. John Ramming Chappell, a researcher at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said Van Hollen’s measures were “unlikely to succeed but would still cause embarrassment to the government”.

The White House worked with Mr. Van Hollen to draft a national security memo similar to his Senate measure. These include requiring all recipients of U.S. military assistance to provide written “guarantees” that they comply with applicable domestic and international laws when using U.S. weapons. The clear reason for this measure was Israel, without naming Israel.

Israel submitted its assurances to the State Department in late March. Blinken is currently overseeing a report to Congress that assesses “any credible reports or allegations” that U.S. weapons have been used to violate the law and whether the countries involved are “appropriately held accountable.”

The report must also state whether the country “fully cooperates” with U.S. efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to conflict zones where U.S. weapons are used.

“This will be a test of the government’s credibility and its willingness to tell some inconvenient truths,” Van Hollen said in an interview. “This report should be based on hard facts and the law.”

“The question is, what will the Biden administration do to verify any claims? It’s not enough to just say, ‘Oh, you know, we’ve asked the Israeli government and they said this is reasonable,'” he added.

Experts tracking the issue doubt the report will blame Israel for at least not finding a way to continue shipping weapons.

The Biden administration rejects such rhetoric. “The same standards should apply to every conflict around the world, including this one,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters last week. But he added that the conflict in Gaza was “more difficult” than most because Hamas militants hide in densely populated civilian areas.

If the report finds that Israel’s assurances are not credible, it must describe steps to “assess and remedy the situation.” That could include anything from “refreshing assurances” to cutting off arms transfers, according to Biden’s original memo.

Mr. Miller said the department was separately investigating an unspecified number of incidents under an internal policy established by Mr. Blinken in August.

But Mr Miller said in February that the system was designed simply to encourage policy discussions “to reduce the risk of such incidents occurring in the future”. It did not outline specific penalties.

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