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New rules tighten rights, atrocity criteria in U.S. weapons shipments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New guidelines for providing U.S. conventional weapons to other countries make rules on human rights more explicit and prohibit policymakers from approving weapons shipments they anticipate will be used to commit atrocities, U.S. officials said.

The guidelines, released on Wednesday and updated for the first time since the mid-1990s, is the product of a presidential directive signed by President Barack Obama on Wednesday that governs U.S. weapons sales and shipments to allied countries.

The new rules will govern U.S. government sales to other governments; sales by U.S. arms companies overseas; and weapons, data, services or equipment provided as part of U.S. military aid or security assistance overseas.

"This is an area that has been a challenge for U.S. foreign policy for some time, but it really has been crystallized in the last couple of years with the events in the Middle East," Tom Kelly, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs, said in an interview.

"We wanted to make sure that it's very clear that human rights considerations really are at the core of our arms transfer decisions," he said.

For the first time, U.S. arms sales will be explicitly guided by a principle of "restraint," signaling that officials should use caution when considering weapons sales that might exacerbate tenuous security conditions.

While the old policy required policymakers to consider the "human rights and terrorism record" of customer countries and the potential for U.S. arms to be misused, the new policy goes a step further.

It requires consideration of the likelihood that weapons would be used to commit rights abuses, directly or by a third party, and of the possibility weapons would "identify the United States with human rights abuses or serious violations of international humanitarian law."

Still, such rights concerns are just part of a long list of considerations in weapons sales. The new guidelines also aim to support U.S. national security goals and say arms transfers should promote the acquisition of U.S. weapons systems and to "strengthen the industrial base."

The United States is a global leader in weapons sales. U.S. government weapons sales have averaged above $30 billion a year over the last four years, the State Department said, and climbed to more than $60 billion last year.

U.S. officials say the new presidential policy, the product of years of internal discussions, codifies changes that have slowly taken effect in recent years.

They say the rules also reflect the changing realities of the post-9/11 world, when non-state actors such as militant groups, pirates and drug cartels have in some ways displaced concerns about conflict between states.

The policy also appears to reflect the possibility of the kind of sweeping, sudden political change that has characterized the Arab uprisings of recent years.

Officials are instructed to consider, for example, "the risk that significant change in the political or security situation of the recipient country could lead to inappropriate end-use or transfer of defense articles."

For the first time, the rules prohibit shipments when officials have "actual knowledge" that the weapons will be used to commit "genocide," crimes against humanity or war crimes.

Scott Busby, another senior State Department official, said the administration was constantly collecting and analyzing intelligence to identify where genocide or atrocities might occur. Such analysis would be used to inform decisions about arms sales.

(Reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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