U.S. Arms Transfer Code of Conduct


U.S. CodeU.S. International Code Act | Other Resources


The International Arms Sales Code of Conduct Act of 1999

The International Arms Sales Code of Conduct Act - passed as part of the FY2000-01 State Department Authorization Act in November 1999 - requires the President to begin negotiations on a multilateral regime on arms export criteria. It also requires the State Department to include in its annual report on human rights the extent to which states meet the Code's criteria. While this is only a first step towards a U.S. Code of Conduct, it establishes congressional support for the Code principles and the need for greater restraint on arms sales by the United States and its allies. See Legislative History for additional information on the provisions of the law.

The State Department is now working with other major arms exporting states on the content and framework for such a multilateral Code of Conduct. Because the European Union has already agreed to its own Code of Conduct, State began working with those nations first. These talks led to a US-EU Declaration of Responsibility in Arms Exports at the December 2000 US-EU Summit, where the parties agreed to "to work together to encourage all arms exporting countries to adopt the principles of responsibility, transparency and restraint that they apply to their own arms export programs." The Declaration is essentially a statement of intent to jointly pursue an agreement on conventional arms transfers that would incorporate the normative elements of the EU Code of Conduct with stronger U.S. rules on transparency, technology transfers, arms brokering, weapons retransfers, and end-use monitoring. Although the parties agree to uphold certain principles and controls in this document, the Declaration does not satisfy the requirements of the U.S. law, which calls for commitment to a specific set of arms export criteria. Therefore the Declaration can be seen as a positive first step - but first step only - toward implementation of the U.S. requirement. 

The next hurdle for achieving an International Code will be to draft the actual text of an agreement and to find a suitable venue for the Code that will allow for a wide variety of arms exporters to participate without bogging the agreement down in an unwieldy negotiating environment, such as the UN or Wassenaar Arrangement.


U.S. Code of Conduct

Legislation to enact a U.S. Code of Conduct has been introduced in successive sessions of Congress since 1993. The Code would require the President to submit to Congress, once a year, a list of countries that meet certain eligibility criteria in order to import American weapons. The conditions set out in the "Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers" are:

  • democratic form of government
  • respect for basic human rights of its citizens
  • non-aggression (against other states)
  • full participation in the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms

These criteria are all primary foreign policy tenets of past and present U.S. administrations, but are not uniformly applied to arms export decisions. 

Background || Text of the Full Code of Conduct || Talking Points

Legislative History || How You Can Help || 


Background on the Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers Act

On February 1, 1995 Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield (R-OR) and House International Relations Committee member Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) introduced the "Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers Act of 1995" into the 104th Congress (H.R.772 -- S. 326).

A hearing was held on the bill in the Senate and the Code was debated and voted on in both the House and the Senate. Although it was not passed into law, these debates were historic. They represented the first vote on a major reform to US arms export policy in 20 years.

Over 300 U.S. arms control, human rights, womens professional, development and religious groups have endorsed the campaign and legislation.

On 30 May 1997, 15 former recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize--including the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, and Oscar Arias--kicked off a campaign to establish an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. Their initiative would mirror the U.S. Code of Conduct.

The Nobel Laureates have written a number of articles in support of the Code:

  • Oscar Arias, New York Times, 23 June 1999
  • Oscar Arias, Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1997
  • Oscar Arias, The Nation, 7 October 1996
  • Jose Ramos-Horta, Washington Times, 23 July 1997
  • Betty Williams, San Francisco Examiner, 13 July 1997

Arms Transfer Code of Conduct: Talking Points

The Code of Conduct requires the President to submit to Congress, once a year, a list of countries that meet certain eligibility criteria in order to import American weapons. The conditions set out in the "Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers" are:

  • democratic form of government
  • respect for basic human rights of citizens
  • non-aggression (against other states)
  • full participation in the U.N. Register of Conventional Arms

These criteria are all primary foreign policy tenets of past and present U.S. administrations. Nevertheless, 85% of U.S. arms transfers during 1990-95 went to states which did not meet the Code's criteria.

This bill would not ban all arms sales. The government and U.S. contractors may continue to export arms to countries which meet the Code's criteria. Exports may continue to those which do not meet the criteria, if the President submits a national security waiver to Congress.

The bill raises the level of scrutiny on arms exports to those governments which may be less stable because of their repressive or aggressive practices. Heightened scrutiny is called for in order to keep U.S. weapons from outlasting U.S. alliances.

Which countries would be affected? The administration will determine which countries meet the Code's criteria. Information concerning several of the criteria is contained in State Department publications; participation in the U.N. Register is a matter of public record.

The act increases Congressional responsibility but does not encroach on Executive Branch foreign-policy making prerogatives. The Congressional Research Service has determined that the bill is Constitutional. Congress has long applied conditions on arms exports. For example, Congress has passed laws preventing states which sponsor terrorism from receiving U.S. weaponry. Other criteria existing in U.S. law will remain in effect when the Code is enacted. In addition, Congress' ability under U.S. law (Arms Export Control Act, Section 36) to block individual arms exports will remain in effect when the Code is enacted.

The annual certification process would provide important leverage to the Executive branch to help move U.S. allies toward democracy, respect for human rights, non-aggression and participation in the international arms register.

If the U.S. doesn't sell weapons to countries which don't live up to the Code, won't someone else? The United States is the world's undisputed political leader. It is also the world's undisputed leader in arms exports. U.S. leadership in making responsible arms exports is crucial. If U.S. policy sets a standard, the government can challenge others to adhere to similar standards. When the U.S. has led the way in the past (ballistic missile control; anti-personnel landmines), it has succeeded in encouraging others to follow.

How You Can Help

Grassroots support is vital to maintain the Code of Conduct's legislative momentum. If you are interested in participating in the campaign to curtail arms sales to dictators and human rights abusers, contact one of the grassroots lobby organizations in the Arms Transfer Working Group. Check out any urgent Action Alerts.

Publicity is crucial. Send a "letter to the editor" or an op-ed on the Code of Conduct to your local paper. Talk about the role that your local Member of Congress can play in preventing a repeat of this policy by supporting passage of the Code of Conduct. Place a call to a talk radio show or other media outlets in the area. Get the word out and educate and persuade your Representative.

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