WASHINGTON, DC (WRIC) — Representative Abigail Spanberger (D – Henrico) and Senator Tim Kaine (D – Virginia) are sponsoring legislation that would give congress increased oversight over arms deals with countries that violate international human rights standards.
The bill was announced by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Oct. 20, and a senate version has been under consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since September 2020.
Billed as the SAFEGUARD Act, the legislation would prevent the United States from signing arms deals or military contracts with any country that the State Department has credible information has “committed or is committing genocide or violations of international humanitarian law.”
The act would also subject some arms sales to congressional review when the government of the receiving country has recently been overthrown by a coup or if the government’s security forces are engaged in human rights abuses.
“I believe that our nation has a national security obligation and moral imperative to prevent American weapons and military equipment from being used to carry out human rights violations,” Rep. Spanberger told 8News in an email earlier this week.
The issue of human rights and arms exports became a hot-button issue after the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi hit squad. The murder was later revealed to have been ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, but former president Donald Trump took no action against Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has also been criticized for indiscriminate bombings of civilians, including children, in Yemen as a civil war continues to rage between the Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebels. Before his election, President Joe Biden committed to taking action on Saudi human rights abuses, but in July he met with Bin Salman’s brother, reaffirming American commitment to cooperation with the kingdom.
“The humanitarian crisis in Yemen — exacerbated by the Trump Administration’s transfer of offensive weapons that supported the Saudi-led coalition’s attacks on noncombatants — is a prime example of where our government failed to demonstrate good judgement,” Spanberger said.
In a statement to 8News, a spokesperson for Senator Kaine said the congressional committees would evaluate human rights compliance based on international treaties the United States has signed and ratified, such as the Convention against Torture.
But that provision could raise difficult questions for Kaine and Spanberger as it relates to Israeli military aid.
A U.S. State Department report released in 2020 detailed allegations of legally permitted torture of prisoners, arbitrary and politically motivated arrests and indefinite detention without trial of some prisoners held under the country’s “Illegal Combatant Law.”
In July, a U.N. report to the Human Rights Council found that Israeli settlements in the West Bank, supported by the Israeli government, amounted to a war crime in violation of the 1998 Rome Statute. The United States is not a signatory to the Rome Statute.
The Times of Israel also noted that Kaine was a key vote in ensuring that funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system was included in a defense bill passed in 2014.
In the past, Jstreet has urged legislators to ensure military aid is not being used to commit human rights abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. They support a policy of end use monitoring, which is included as a provision in the SAFEGUARD Act but oppose any attempt by the U.S. to push for an end to the illegal occupation of the West Bank.
Ultimately, the bill wouldn’t require congress to take any action on arms deals that could contribute to human rights abuses in foreign countries. It would simply require, according to Spanberger, that “all such sales and services [be] reviewed by Congress.”
Kaine and Spanberger have both been consistent advocates for re-asserting the role of congress in foreign policy. Earlier this year, Kaine advanced a resolution in the senate that would revoke a sweeping authorization for the use of military force that has been in place since 2002. Spanberger sponsored a similar bill to repeal an authorization of military force against Iraq that dates to 1991.