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Menendez, Leahy, and Kaine Unveil Reforms Restricting U.S. Arms Sales to Human Rights Abusers

SAFEGUARD Act prohibits arms sales to countries committing genocide or war crimes; increases Congressional oversight of provision of arms, defense services to ensure protection of human rights

WASHINGTON — Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) today introduced the Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports (SAFEGUARD) Act of 2020. With a growing list of foreign governments using U.S-sold arms and defense services in the commission of human rights abuses against innocent civilians in combat, the senators’ new legislation reasserts the importance of Congress’ role in the arms sales process in an attempt to prevent the United States government from contributing to or facilitating such abuses in the future.  

Specifically, the SAFEGUARD Act seeks to enact reforms to the Arms Export Control Act to make the protection and promotion of human rights a primary consideration in the exportation of deadly weapons and defense services to other countries and international organizations.

“Safeguarding and prioritizing basic human rights in the sale or transfer of lethal arms and in training, advising and support services is not just a moral imperative; it is a fundamental responsibility for any country that wishes to provide such weapons or services to others,” Ranking Member Menendez said. “The United States has for too long devoted inadequate care to this responsibility, and innocent people have suffered for it. The U.S. should support partners and friendly countries in their legitimate defense needs, and we should be able to do so without the blood of the innocent on our hands. The SAFEGUARD Act is a common sense reform to make certain no U.S. President can ever reward human rights abusers or war criminals with America’s deadliest weapons.”

“Today, U.S. law includes a lower standard for protecting human rights when foreign partners purchase U.S. weapons, as opposed to when we provide them weapons free of charge. That makes no sense and it is bad policy,” Senator Leahy said.

“This legislation will require that the United States fully consider the human rights record of any potential buyer of U.S. weapons to prevent sales to human rights abusers and to ensure that U.S. equipment is not used in violation of international humanitarian law,” said Senator Kaine. “At a time when the Trump Administration refuses to cancel arms deals to any country as a repercussion for gross human rights violations, it is critical for Congress to hold the line on a values-based national security policy.”  

A copy of the SAFEGUARD Act can be found HERE. Key provisions of the legislation include:

  • Elevates the protection of human rights in the control and export of defense articles and defense services as an official policy of the United States and places in statute the requirement that the provision of such articles and services will not present a significant risk of violating international humanitarian law or internationally recognized human rights.
  • Prohibits arms sales to countries committing genocide or war crimes; and extends the Leahy Law to cover arms sales.
  • Requires agreements with purchasers that defense article or services will not be used to commit human rights abuses, and allows for the right of return for any arms that are misused.
  • Increases Congressional oversight over any sale or provision of arms and defense services to any country subjected to a coup or that violated specific human rights, including through rape, ethnic cleansing, use of child soldiers, wrongful detention, and extrajudicial killings, by requiring all such sales and services to be reviewed by Congress.
  • Strengthens requirement for the State Department to consider a country’s entire human rights record; ensures that State’s human rights bureau is involved in decisions to provide defense articles or services; and requires an annual report by the Inspector General on implementation of this provision.
  • Requires certain highly lethal weapons systems to be sold only through the Foreign Military Sales system, thereby allowing conditions and requirements to be placed on such sales by the Department of State; and
  • Requires the sale of any firearm silencer or suppressor to a non-governmental foreign person be reviewed by Congress.