Under new US weapons sale rules, ‘security sector governance’ is king
WASHINGTON — Countries must follow required security practices and procedures if they want to buy US made weapons under the Biden administration’s updated Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy, a senior state department official emphasized today.
Security sector governance “is incredibly important because, to me, security sector governance is the overlay for all of these issues,” Jessica Lewis, assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast.
“So if you look at how countries are working on their security sector, questions of how those security sectors work influence things like corruption, human rights, compliance with rule of law — and frankly, I think, provide an underpinning for democracy when we talk about the relationship between the security sector and, you know, democratic institutions.”
While the US still aims to bolster weapon sales, Lewis made it clear that the US can and should have both “strong and deep” security cooperation relationships while working with countries on protecting human rights.
The revised CAT policy, released Wednesday, reverses the Trump administration’s economic-first stance, setting an overarching standard that takes into account potential human rights impacts of any weapon sales.
The policy, in part, sets a new standard for the administration to not go through with an arms transfer if it assesses that the arms could be used to facilitate human rights abuses. Previous standards restricted arms transfers only in cases where the government had actual knowledge that the arms would be used to abuse human rights.
“I think from the outset, it sets a very different tone than the Trump administration’s policy, which it replaces,” Rachel Stohl, vice president of research programs at the Stimson Center, told Breaking Defense on Thursday. “Obviously, it does the same thing that all CAT policies do, but it really sort of sends an incredibly strong message and explains how conventional arms trade is tied to US values, to US interests, both from a foreign policy and a national security perspective.”
Stohl added the biggest question that remains is how the policy actually gets implemented and what changes will be seen because of the policy.
“Because I think if you look at the Biden administration’s record so far, there are numerous examples of where the administration has provided arms sales to countries with very concerning human rights records, for example, and so, if they had been using sort of the framework or the approach of this policy from the beginning, what changes today?” she said. “What are we gonna see this administration do differently? How are we going to know that it’s having an impact?”
Under the policy, the government will focus on four areas when supporting an arms transfer decision: competitive financing, exportability, technology security and foreign disclosure and exploring possibilities that deliver more cost-effective capabilities outside of systems routinely bought by the Defense Department. A State Department official on background told Breaking Defense on Thursday that the National Security Council has established four interagency working groups tackling those lines of efforts.
According to a fact sheet about the policy, the administration still aims to support an innovative defense industrial base, but the government “will promote transfers when they are in the US national interest, in line with the considerations of the CAT Policy and applicable export control regulations, and consistent with defense trade advocacy procedures.”
Eric Fanning, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, said in a statement that the policy is a “critical signal” to industry and allies.
“We simply must reduce the time it takes to make critical arms transfer decisions,” Fanning said. “The CAT policy’s modernization and supply chain resiliency goals, along with the Department of Defense’s ‘Tiger Team’ and other ongoing government assessments, are a good start. However, we need urgent, senior-level action. Our industry has provided clear and actionable recommendations to improve the arms transfer process, and we remain hopeful those recommendations will be taken up with immediate effect.”