The process, which represents the first formal system for monitoring and potentially penalizing reported abuses involving foreign forces and U.S.-origin arms, comes as the United States seeks to turn the page on
civilian collateral damage incidents during two decades of counterinsurgent operations by the United States and its partners.
It mirrors an evolving initiative at the Defense Department to prevent and investigate civilian deaths by American forces, with the goal of averting incidents like the 2017 airstrike that unintentionally killed more than 100 civilians in Iraq and the 2021 bombing that mistakenly targeted an employee of a U.S.-based charity in Afghanistan.
The new initiative, which will be led by the State Department but involve personnel from the Pentagon, intelligence community and other agencies, will look at alleged incidents involving U.S.-made weapons in the hands of partner governments around the globe. The CHIRG program has not been previously reported.
“It is not only the right thing to do from a moral perspective,” said Mira Resnick, a senior official in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. “It is more effective for U.S. national security if our partners are using these items responsibly.”
Foreign arms sales are a reliable tool for influencing foreign nations and a means for improving those countries’ ability to operate alongside the United States. They are also a boon for America’s defense industry. So far in 2023, the Biden administration has notified Congress of plans for $81 billion in foreign military sales, according to the Forum on Arms Trade, which tracks arms sales.
U.S. weapons have occasionally ended up in the hands of adversaries or arms dealers, or been employed in ways that have later embarrassed or outraged officials in Washington. In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition used U.S. bombs in deadly strikes on civilian targets, resulting in a suspension of certain weapons sales to Riyadh.
Advocates welcomed the new initiative but said it must be underpinned by resources and a willingness to push back against foreign partners.
“The United States clearly has a vested interest in knowing what harm its weapons sales and security assistance cause to civilians,” said Nicole Widdersheim, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “Let’s see if the Biden administration puts political will behind this good idea.”
President Biden has vowed to put human rights and democracy at the core of his foreign policy, but officials say that geopolitical realities require dealing with nations with troubling treatment of their citizens. While the administration has leaned on some problematic partners, it has deepened ties with other countries over concerns such as reducing the global price of oil, containing Iran or courting nations that might take part in its coalition to support Ukraine.
Under the new system, officials will examine and attempt to corroborate allegations of abuse that come from diplomatic and intelligence channels, the United Nations, media or civil society groups.
In its August cable, the State Department tasked U.S. embassies to actively monitor and report alleged incidents of harm to civilians involving American-made arms in their countries.
Once a claim is validated, officials will recommend actions to department leaders — and, in some instances the deputy secretary of state — who might choose to intensify training or education, curtail future arms sales or authorize a diplomatic response. What action is taken may be informed by the foreign government’s handling of the civilian harm incident, officials said.
Christopher Le Mon, a senior official in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor, said the guidelines formalized activities that had previously occurred in an ad hoc manner, creating a codified process that “isn’t dependent upon workload, bandwidth, or political will to go out and investigate incidents.”
The guidelines come several months after Biden’s approval of a new framework for conventional arms sales that, in a shift from the Trump administration, seeks to elevate human rights as a factor in determining which countries Washington will do business with.
Officials said the new State Department-led procedures seek to fill gaps in existing safeguards. Unlike rules known as “end-use monitoring,” which seek to protect U.S. technology and ensure that arms purchased or received from the United States don’t end up in enemy hands, the new system will explicitly look at their operational use by foreign governments.
Unlike the system known as “Leahy vetting,” which screens foreign forces with the goal of ensuring that units guilty of “grave violations” of human rights don’t receive U.S.-funded training or education, the new rules tee up examination of specific incidents. They will also seek to document abuses that fall short of the “grave violations” standard.
Annie Shiel, U.S. advocacy director at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, called the new system “an important step” in monitoring when and where U.S.-made weapons are harming civilians. “Of course, its impact will come down to the details of implementation,” she said.
The program gets underway as lawmakers intensify calls for greater scrutiny of U.S. arms sales.
A bill introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would ensure that the new procedures can’t be dissolved by a future administration, along with establishing other steps to prioritize rights concerns in arms sales.
Menendez, in a statement to The Washington Post, said the United States has been a “leading voice” on human rights for decades. “It has at the same time led the world in arms sales,” he said. “The U.S. therefore has a responsibility to ensure that its arms sales do not also purchase the blood of innocents through malign use.”
Officials said that the outcome of probes into alleged abuses will inform decisions about future arms sales. But it’s not yet clear how much funding or personnel the initiative will eventually get, or how often State Department leaders will choose to suspend or halt sales to countries who forces have used American arms against civilians when such steps are recommended.
“It’s not that every incident demands an immediate cessation of all arms transfers,” Le Mon said. “In many cases, the best way to mitigate future civilian harm incidents will be more engagement and not less engagement.”
Officials declined to say whether recent reported abuses against migrants by Saudi government forces who may have used U.S.-origin equipment would be examined under the new system. State Department officials said that they do not plan to issue routine disclosures about investigations or recommendations under the guidelines, which will not be retroactive.