With Great Power: Modifying US Arms Sales to Reduce Civilian Harm In Focus

International arms sales represent an enduring and prominent feature of American foreign policy. The United States sells or licenses the sale of weapons to other governments to advance its foreign policy, security, and economic interests. And the US is the biggest player in the global arms marketplace.

But when US weapons fall into the wrong hands — or become associated with corruption, human rights abuses, or violations of the laws of war — US foreign policy objectives, troops, and civilians around the globe can be put at increased risk.

What can the US do to modify arms sales to reduce civilian harm? The Center for Civilians in Conflict and the Stimson Center examine.

In 2016, armed conflict in as many as 34 countries killed an estimated 102,000 people and caused widespread damage to civilian infrastructure, including homes, schools, and hospitals...

The U.S. delivered arms to 27 of those countries in conflict...

The United States holds an unrivaled dominance in the global market share of arms sales.

The total value of international US arms exports delivered in 2016 was close to $10 billion, or 29 percent of the total global export market.

The global arms trade has a direct bearing on the effects of war on civilians, including many children.

Of mounting concern are the effects of explosive weapons used in urban areas, as seen in recent military campaigns in Iraq and Syria.

Data collected indicates that civilians represent approximately 92 percent of those reported killed and injured when security forces employ explosive weapons in populated areas.

Analysts estimate that explosive weapons led to the death of 32,000 civilians in 2016 alone.


With its outsized influence on the trade and use of arms worldwide, the US has the ability, the opportunity, and the responsibility to shape the arms trade to reduce harm to civilians. Steps that can be taken include:

  • Ensuring that the US government has the access and information necessary to evaluate whether the conduct of its partners is lawful.
  • Evaluating the risk of arms sales based on prior conduct and its consequences, alignment of interests, and partner capacity and competence.
  • Avoiding “soft” commitments to approve sales until risk has been appropriately vetted.
  • Establishing conflict-related “tripwires” that require re-assessment of arms sales and options for preventing the use of certain weapons systems if necessary. The US government should also understand how and when the major arms it sells are used in conflict.
  • Maintaining basic access, oversight, and visibility into the use of US-sold defense items as a part of the weapons sales cycle. Strengthen the terms of sale and end-use monitoring requirements for certain defense items, to include clearer standards for use.
  • Conducting pre-sale assessments and ensure that arms sales are accompanied by customized technical assistance focused on appropriate and lawful use; include the promotion of changes in process and policy that ensure appropriate use; and, in some cases, require testing before delivery as a prerequisite to finalizing a sale.
  • Making more information on potential sales – including planned civilian harm mitigation measures – available earlier in the process, and consult more frequently with affected stakeholders in the United States and within the purchasing country.
  • Engaging industry in dialogue, involving civil society, to explain risk-mitigation controls and to find innovative ways that industry can be part of the solution to civilian harm.
  • Congress should request additional analysis and planned mitigation measures for certain sales and clarify the intent of domestic regulations – such as the Arms Export Control Act – governing the appropriate use of US arms by partner forces.

Watch the video below to learn more about the steps that can be taken to prevent US arms from harming civilians.

About the Experts

Daniel Mahanty, Director, U.S. Program, Center for Civilians In Conflict

Rachel Stohl, Senior Associate & Director, Conventional Defense Program, Stimson Center

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Title: Wikimedia Commons; First Photo: AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoffdimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images; Second Photo: Oxfam International/Anas al Baba; Third Photo: AU UN IST Photo/Tobin Jones

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