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Lessons to be drawn from contradictory U.S. approaches to Ukraine and Bahrain

Demonstration in Bahrain in 2012.

Demonstration in Bahrain in 2012.

The last three months of protests in Ukraine have provided eye-opening insights into the dynamics of effective strategies for toppling governments that revolutionaries around the world would do well to take note of. Perhaps more noteworthy, however, are the insights offered into the mindset of U.S. policymakers, namely how shamelessly hypocritical they can be in their treatment of protest movements depending on the goals and geopolitical alignments of those movements.

While U.S. officials vocally supported the Euromaidan protests from the beginning, publicly chastising Ukrainian authorities for using force against demonstrators and declining from forcefully condemning acts of violence committed by protesters, U.S. policy towards Bahrain, which has been in the grips of peaceful popular protests for democracy since 2011, has taken a much different approach.

For three years, the U.S. government has been turning a blind eye to the wanton abuses committed in Bahrain, continuing to sell weapons to the Bahraini regime and docking the Navy’s Fifth Fleet on the country’s shores. The three years of unrest has compelled the Obama administration to reluctantly place a hold on sales of some military equipment that could easily be used against protesters, but the U.S. has continued to supply equipment for Bahrain’s “external defense capabilities.”

Human rights groups, however, point out that some of the equipment the U.S. continues to provide, such as Cobra helicopters, have been used against protesters and that the United States cannot be sure that sales to and training of Bahraini military forces is not being used to crush unrest.

Amnesty International’s 2013 country report on Bahrain noted that “The authorities continued to crack down on protests and dissent” and “Scores of people remained in prison or were detained for opposing the government, including prisoners of conscience and people sentenced after unfair trials.”

Further, human rights defenders were harassed and imprisoned and “security forces continued to use excessive force against protesters, resulting in deaths, and allegedly tortured or otherwise ill-treated detainees,” Amnesty reported.

With these human rights abuses in mind, the continued U.S. military aid to the country is likely being carried out in violation of humanitarian obligations under international law. According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

Earlier this month, Human Rights First pleaded with the U.S. government to use the third anniversary of the Bahraini uprising to at least push for the release of human rights defenders who have been imprisoned since the peaceful democratic uprising began.

“Human rights activists in Bahrain wonder when President Obama will act on his 2011 pledge that the United States ‘cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just,’” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “The Bahraini government’s repression over the last three years, including its jailing of political dissidents, has made the country more unstable. It’s time the United States told its ally that its relationship with Bahrain can’t afford another year like the last three.”

While the Obama administration won’t even call for the release of Bahraini political prisoners, much less move towards implementing sanctions against the Bahraini regime for its gross human rights abuses over the past three years, U.S. policymakers wasted no time in threatening sanctions against President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine after police attempted to quell the pro-EU demonstrations this winter.

The first threat of sanctions came on Jan. 7, a little more than a month after protests began, in a Senate resolution which warned the Ukrainian government that “in the event of further state violence against peaceful protestors, the President and Congress should consider whether to apply targeted sanctions.”

These threats were reiterated by President Obama on Feb. 19, warning that “there will be consequences if people step over the line,” and saying he holds the government “primarily responsible” for showing restraint in dealing with the opposition.

Going beyond diplomatic reprimands of the Ukrainian government, policymakers have gone to absurd and unprecedented lengths to make clear their solidarity and support for the Euromaidan protesters. In mid-December, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – both members of the Foreign Relations Committee – flew to Ukraine and addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Kyiv.

GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS -  Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), left, takes a photograph as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) makes a speech to pro-European integration protesters in Kyiv.

GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS – Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), left, takes a photograph as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) makes a speech to pro-European integration protesters in Kyiv.

“We are here,” said McCain, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.” Murphy added, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland feeds cookies to Ukraine protesters.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland feeds cookies to Ukraine protesters.

Not to be outdone, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt went to the barricades in Kyiv to hand out cookies and buns to the demonstrators, in a move widely seen as an implicit message of official U.S. support to the Euromaidan protests. As Voice of Russia reported,

The recent handing-out of buns and cookies to protesters by the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, has become a graphic illustration of the West’s “policy of non-interference”. First, she shook hands with and embraced the demonstrators and only then left for a meeting with President Yanukovych, whom she lectured for a couple of hours on the poor treatment of the opposition.

President Obama also forcefully defended the rights of the protesters, despite the violent turn that the demonstrations took since the initially peaceful gatherings in late November. After renewed violence on Jan. 19 that left 60 policemen injured and a reported 40 or so protesters hurt, the White House said in a statement that the blame for the bloodshed laid squarely with the Ukrainian authorities.

“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said. “Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law.”

While it may be confounding to the casual observer why the U.S. government would take such divergent and contradictory approaches to the two situations in Ukraine and Bahrain, there are a couple of important differences to keep in mind that may help explain the difference in U.S. policy. On one hand, Bahrain is ruled by an unelected dictatorship, while Ukraine’s deposed government was democratically elected.

Also, the Bahraini protests have maintained a commitment to nonviolence, while the Ukrainian protests quickly turned militant following the authorities’ attempt to clear the Maidan of demonstrators on Nov. 30. Following that crackdown, Kyiv was rocked by riots, in which a group of protesters commandeered a bulldozer and attempted to pull down the fence surrounding the Presidential Administration building. Others threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at Berkut guards.

But perhaps the biggest difference between Ukraine and Bahrain, as well as the anti-government protests that have gripped each country, is the geopolitical orientation of the governments. In Bahrain, the Sunni royal family is closely aligned with U.S. ally Saudi Arabia while the Shiite protesters are feared to have support from Iran.

In Ukraine, the deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych had close relations with Moscow, a U.S. adversary. Although Yanukovych also attempted to maintain good relations with Brussels, when it came to choosing between the European Union and the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, he chose the latter. This sealed his fate in the eyes of Western leaders, who seemed intent on embracing the pro-EU demonstrators, no matter how violent or militant their tactics.

This leads to a few lessons that can be drawn from these recent events.

Electoral legitimacy does not matter to U.S. policymakers.

If you were under the misimpression that the United States cares about whether leaders are legitimately elected or not, you would be wrong. Despite his flaws, the fact is Yanukovych was voted into office by Ukrainians in an election that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said “met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004.”

Bahrain, on the other hand, has been ruled by the al-Khalifa dynasty since 1783. The current King of Bahrain, since 2002, is Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the head of the government, since 1971, is Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, appointed by the king. In other words, Bahrain is an outright dictatorship, yet, there are no cookies handed out for the demonstrators who have risen up in that country, and no words of support for the political prisoners who languish in Bahraini jails.

It doesn’t matter whether protests are peaceful or violent.

As long as protests have policy goals that are shared by the U.S. government, such as overthrowing a leader who has sympathies with a U.S. adversary such as Russia, the U.S. will support those protests no matter how violent they may be. On the other hand, peaceful protests that pose a dilemma to U.S. strategy, for example by threatening a government that hosts a U.S. naval fleet, will be abandoned by U.S. policymakers. No cookies for them.

Violent protests are more effective than peaceful protests, as long as the protests have Western backing.

In three short months, Ukrainian militants managed to topple the Yanukovych government, while in three long years, Bahraini protesters appear no closer to achieving their goals than they were in 2011. The main difference appears to be the fact that Western governments, including the U.S., quickly moved to de-legitimize the Yanukovych government through policy pronouncements that made clear that the government had lost credibility in the eyes of the world. Threats of sanctions appear to have had an effect on many members of the Yanukovych government who began jumping ship and leaving the president out to dry.

U.S. officials are shameless in their hypocrisy.

While U.S. officials insist that foreign governments listen to their people, they obviously couldn’t care less about what the American people have to say about anything. The White House laid the blame for the tension in Ukraine squarely on the government for “failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” called on the authorities to withdraw riot police and effectively absolved protesters for any role they may have had in the violence.

But when Americans rose up in 2011 and 2012 in protest against corruption and income inequality as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Obama administration was virtually silent when the police carried out a nationwide violent crackdown on the encampments. When asked about the police violence against Occupy Oakland in October 2011, White House spokesman Jay Carney laid the blame on the protesters, despite the fact that YouTube videos clearly demonstrate that the police were the instigators.

“As to the violence,” he said, “we obviously believe and insist that everyone behave in a lawful manner, even as they’re expressing, justifiably, their frustrations. It’s also important that laws are upheld and obeyed.”

This is essentially the exact opposite of what administration officials were saying regarding the violence in Kyiv, which was blamed entirely on the police.

So, what we can infer from all this is that all of the U.S. talk of democracy is just that, talk. What the United States is really interested in is geostrategic advantage and global dominance, so if you want to have a protest that the U.S. will back, you should make sure that your protest will advance U.S. geopolitical goals.

U.S. urged to stop intervening in other countries and be more consistent on human rights

The U.S. government should stop meddling in the affairs of other nations, says a majority of Americans in a recent poll. According to the survey, 52% say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38% disagree with the statement.

“This is the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. ‘minding its own business,’ in the nearly 50-year history of the measure,” according to the Pew Center for People and the Press, which conducted the survey.

When asked to describe in their own words why they feel this way about the U.S. role in the world, nearly half (47%) say problems at home, including the economy, should get more attention.

Nearly eight-in-ten Americans (77%) agree that “in deciding on its foreign policies, the U.S. should take into account the views of its major allies.” And most (56%) disagree that “since the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters.”

Further, “when it comes to working with the United Nations, 56% of the public agrees that the U.S. should cooperate fully with the international organization, which is virtually unchanged from 2011 (58%).”

Although Americans thought that impressions of how the U.S. is perceived abroad improved after Barack Obama took office, they are now as negative as they were during the Bush administration. Seven-in-ten believe the U.S. is less respected by other countries than in the past, while just 7% say the U.S. is more respected and 19% say it is as respected as in the past.

The survey found that promoting human rights abroad, helping improve living standards in developing countries and promoting democracy are relatively low priorities for the American public. But at a human rights conference in Washington this week, activists urged the U.S. government to be more consistent in its approach toward repressive regimes, warning that double standards send the wrong message to democracy campaigners.

America’s over-arching focus on security concerns is obscuring the need to hold governments accountable for rights abuses, activists said. UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, Maina Kiai, argued that the United States needed to treat all governments the same way.

“It’s very difficult to understand why the US government treats Ethiopia when it attacks human rights defenders differently from how the US treats Zimbabwe. Or how the US treats Egypt as opposed to Bahrain,” he said.

“Once you start seeing these differences they start sending a message across the world that actually the US wants to pick and choose where it wants to defend human rights.”

As reported by AFP, “the message was particularly confused in Egypt, where the US has frozen part of its aid to the military, and put on hold the delivery of large weapons systems, after it ousted president Mohamed Morsi in July, said activist Nadine Wahab.”

“When funding… continues to go to the weapons that attack and create human rights violations, like tear gas and bullets, but you hold the F-16s, the message that’s going to these governments and going to human rights defenders is that human rights is not important,” said Wahab, an expert with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

And she challenged the US administration’s policy of not cutting off all military aid to Egypt, which was aimed at helping the Egyptian army to battle militants in the Sinai peninsula and help maintain regional stability.

“One of the things that the United States really needs to do is look at its counter-terrorism narrative, look at how security is thought of within a domestic policy and an international policy and see whether security and stability is human rights? Or whether security and stability is guns and more weapons?” said Wahab.

Seemingly disregarding these concerns, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this week  that the U.S. will continue its military involvement globally.

“Last week we entered our thirteenth year of combat in Afghanistan,” Hagel noted, adding that the U.S. has continued to have a “steady state of presence in the Arabian Gulf and elsewhere.”

Hagel’s comments were made as he heads for Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and focused on promises of U.S. military support for those nations, despite their troubling human rights records. Both countries are considered “not free” in Freedom House’s annual survey of “freedom in the world.”

Regarding Bahrain, Amnesty International notes that in 2013, “the authorities [have] continued to crack down on protests and dissent.”

Scores of people remain in prison, detained for opposing the government, including prisoners of conscience and people sentenced after unfair trials, says Amnesty. Further, human rights defenders and other activists are being harassed and imprisoned.

Over the past few years of the crackdown against pro-democracy activists in Bahrain, the U.S. government has showered the regime with tens of millions of dollars in military aid. The Obama administration has not imposed any sanctions on Bahrain or on Bahraini officials for human rights abuses.

As world welcomes historic Arms Trade Treaty, U.S. Senators vow to block it

Amnesty International demonstrators rally for the Arms Trade Treaty at the White House on March 22, 2013. (AFP/Jim Watson)

Amnesty International demonstrators rally for the Arms Trade Treaty at the White House on March 22, 2013. (AFP/Jim Watson)

Immediately following the historic adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty by the UN General Assembly last week – with only Iran, Syria and North Korea voting against it, and 23 abstentions – a group of U.S. senators vowed to defeat the treaty’s ratification, calling it a “non-starter” in the Senate.

The first-of-its-kind treaty seeks to prevent small arms and light weapons, tanks, missiles, helicopters and other weapons from being sold to human rights abusers or terrorist groups, requiring countries to establish internal mechanisms to ensure that their arms exports aren’t likely to be used to harm civilians or violate human rights laws.

Prohibiting arms transfers that would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, the treaty’s adoption on Tuesday was warmly welcomed by much of the world, with UN Secretary General calling it “a historic diplomatic achievement – the culmination of long-held dreams and many years of effort.”

The UN vote on the Arms Trade Treaty: Green indicates yes votes, red indicates no votes, and yellow indicates abstentions. Source: http://armstreaty.org/

The UN vote on the Arms Trade Treaty: Green indicates yes votes, red indicates no votes, and yellow indicates abstentions. Source: http://armstreaty.org/

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) welcomed it in particular as a crucial step toward protecting children.

“The Arms Trade Treaty asks States to explicitly consider the risk that an arms transfer could facilitate serious acts of violence against women and children before allowing it to proceed,” Susan Bissell, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, said in a press release. “This is critical given that weapons are now one of the leading causes of death of children and adolescents in many countries, including many that are not experiencing war,” she added.

The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, applauded the inclusion in the treaty of a prohibition on the transfer of arms that would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and certain war crimes and called on States to act quickly to apply this prohibition.

“Genocide depends in part on the availability of arms and ammunition,” he said. “Despite some shortcomings of this treaty, its adoption represents an important step forward in the struggle to prevent genocide and provides a new legal tool to protect those at risk of their lives, and groups threatened with destruction.”

The European Union hailed the treaty as “a balanced and robust text, the result of comprehensive and inclusive negotiations, where all UN Member States’ views have been expressed and reflected.”

In a statement, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said,

The international community can claim full ownership of this treaty, which will make trade in conventional arms more responsible and transparent, thus reducing human suffering, and tangibly contributing to international peace, security and stability.

The EU has always argued that in order to make a real difference to people affected by the irresponsible and illicit use of conventional arms, the international community needed a treaty that is strong and robust. The Treaty adopted by the General Assembly today, meets these requirements. The ATT that UN Member States have negotiated and adopted is one that contains strong parameters on international humanitarian and human rights law and will apply to a wide range of arms, including ammunition. These were clear priorities for the EU and for a significant number of other UN Member States, which are reflected in the ATT adopted today.

Wolfgang Grossruck, the president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which counts the U.S. as a member, called the treaty “an important step in bringing transparency and protection of human rights to a highly profitable but sometimes unscrupulous industry that too often allows weapons to fall into the wrong hands.”

He added, “Now we must work to ensure that arms-exporting countries, including OSCE participating States, live up to the commitments to which they have just agreed.”

Japan also welcomed the treaty, saying it “will contribute to international and regional peace and security and prevent illicit trafficking of conventional arms as it will provide a common international standard to regulate the transfer of conventional arms.”

Turkey said that the overwhelming vote in favor of the treaty “demonstrates the strong will of the great majority of member states for a universal and legally binding mechanism that sets common standards at the highest possible level to regulate the exports, imports and transfers of conventional arms.”

“The Treaty represents the best possible compromise under current conditions and embodies articles that would enable further improvements in the future,” said the Turkish foreign ministry.

Civil society was overjoyed by the UN vote. In a message to supporters, the Control Arms network wrote,

Last July, after negotiations faltered, we wrote an email telling you that an Arms Trade Treaty was coming. It didn’t happen then, but it’s with great joy that we can now say that we’ve finally achieved something. In fact, we’ve changed the world.

After the process was blocked by Syria, Iran, and North Korea last Thursday, the Arms Trade Treaty was moved to the United Nations General Assembly. Today, an overwhelming majority of States voted in favor of adopting this historic Treaty. This landmark vote sends a clear signal to gunrunners and human rights abusers that their time is up.

Amnesty International said the vote represented the triumph of “voices of reason.”

Today’s victory shows that ordinary people who care about protecting human rights can fight back to stop the gun lobby dead in its tracks, helping to save countless lives. The voices of reason triumphed over skeptics, treaty opponents and dealers in death to establish a revolutionary treaty that constitutes a major step toward keeping assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons out of the hands of despots and warlords who use them to kill and maim civilians, recruit child soldiers and commit other serious abuses. Iran, Syria and North Korea blocked consensus at the U.N., while the NRA cynically – and ultimately unsuccessfully – tried to erode the U.S. government’s support through a campaign of lies about the treaty. But in the end, the global call for responsibility in the arms trade won out.

Amnesty International played a leading role in initiating the campaign for this treaty nearly 20 years ago and has fought tirelessly to stop weapons from being sent to countries where we know they are used to commit human rights atrocities. This has been a life-saving struggle that never could have been achieved without the support of millions of human rights activists who stepped forward to demand change. We call on President Obama to be first in line on June 3 when the treaty opens for signature.

The U.S. gun lobby however objects to the treaty, calling it a potential infringement on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, despite the fact that language was even worked into the treaty’s preamble to reaffirm “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.”

The United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty also makes clear that “the ATT will not interfere with the domestic arms trade and the way a country regulates civilian possession, [or] ban, or prohibit the export of, any type of weapons.”

But the National Rifle Association’s many allies in the Senate – which must ratify the treaty before it becomes legally binding on the U.S. government – have thrown down the gauntlet, making it clear the treaty stands a snowball’s chance in hell of being ratified.

A day after the UN approved the treaty, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah became the 35th senator to endorse a resolution of opposition, calling the treaty “deeply flawed.” The Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate — 67 votes — to ratify a treaty.

“I have great concerns that this treaty can be used to violate the second amendment rights of American citizens, and do not believe we should sign any treaty that infringes on the sovereignty of our country,” Lee said in a statement.

“It’s time the Obama administration recognizes it is already a non-starter, and Americans will not stand for internationalists limiting and infringing upon their Constitutional rights,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

For its part, the Obama administration is being rather tight-lipped about how hard it might be pushing for ratification, or even whether Obama would put his signature on the treaty.

“As is the case with all treaties of this nature, we will follow the normal procedures to conduct a through review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “What that timeline is, I cannot predict to you now — we are just beginning the review process, so I wouldn’t want to speculate when it would end.”

Civil society, however, is not wasting any time in pressing for full U.S. adherence to this landmark treaty. Noting that the United States accounts for the bulk of the world’s arms exports – many of which end up in the hands of brutal dictators like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and the Bahraini monarchy, or help facilitate war crimes by Israel – arms control advocates are calling for swift ratification of the treaty, especially by the UN Security Council’s permanent five members.

arms treaty infographic

As Amnesty International USA put it,

While this is a big win, there is still a lot of work to do. The treaty is adopted but “asleep” – it needs to be signed and ratified by 50 countries before it will enter into force. Amnesty International USA will demand that the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress take this important stand for human rights by signing and then ratifying this landmark treaty.

Amnesty and other human rights groups may have their work cut out for them, with the NRA and other pro-gun organizations spending a huge amount of money to influence Washington policymaking and lining up all their resources in opposition to this treaty that gun manufacturers fear might cut into their profit margins.

The NRA — which is bankrolled by weapons manufacturers — is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, retention of databases of gun purchases, and registration of firearms, and is working overtime to defeat the ATT. As the Center for Responsive Politics notes, it spends tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions and off-the-books spending on issue ads. It is also notorious for its revolving door corruption and influence peddling, with 14 out of 29 NRA lobbyists having previously held government jobs.

It should also be remembered that the U.S. government derailed the Arms Trade Treaty last July, in what Amnesty International called at the time “a staggering abdication of leadership by the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons to pull the plug on the talks just as they were nearing an historic breakthrough.”

In fact it’s possible that the U.S. delegation to the United Nations only voted for the treaty on Tuesday knowing that it will never be ratified by the Senate, and therefore will not be legally binding on the United States. The chief U.S. negotiator, Thomas M. Countryman, told the press that the U.S. would support the treaty because it would promote global security without affecting the constitutional right to bear arms. He also made clear that there was a PR angle to the U.S. vote, saying that he “would rather be on opposite side of Syria, Iran, DPRK than join them in criticism of this treaty.”

The United States had earlier insisted on consensus for the Arms Trade Treaty but then abandoned that insistence when it became clear that only three U.S.-designated rogue states would oppose it.

Countryman told media there was no “inconsistency” in the US position on consensus, emphasizing that it was always part of the plan. “We always knew that this could go to the General Assembly,” he claimed.

Deteriorating human rights in U.S. client states belie claims of progress

Victims of the crackdown in Bahrain

Several months after the United States resumed military aid to the Bahraini dictatorship amid promises of reform, the human rights situation in the country continues to deteriorate, according to a new report by Amnesty International. Repressive practices are growing increasingly entrenched, says Amnesty, and the government is displaying flagrant disregard for the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), set up to investigate widespread human rights violations during the 2011 uprising.

“The Bahraini authorities can no longer shield themselves from criticism by using the pretence of reform, and Bahrain’s close allies, including the USA and the UK can no longer brandish the BICI report to go back to business as usual,” reads the Amnesty report.

The findings come six months after the U.S. State Department informed Congress that the U.S. would be releasing “items and services for the Bahrain Defense Force, the Coast Guard, and the National Guard for the purpose of helping Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities.”

In a statement at the time, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that the decision was made “mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the Government of Bahrain needs to address.” Saying that the U.S. will continue to maintain holds on certain material such as TOW missiles and Humvees, the State Dept. noted that “the Government of Bahrain has begun to take some important steps to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report.”

“Going forward,” Nuland said, “we will continue to engage with Bahrain to encourage meaningful progress on human rights and reform.”

Amnesty’s criticism of Bahrain’s human rights record since U.S. aid was resumed demonstrates that contrary to occasional claims by the U.S. government, supplying weapons to dictators does not necessarily have the effect of producing leverage over those regimes’ human rights practices.

This is a specious argument that is made from time to time by U.S. officials, particularly when aid to an unsavory regime is criticized as geopolitical opportunism, for example in September 2011 when the U.S. lifted restrictions on aid to Uzbekistan – one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

In response to criticism over that move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that “our continuing dialogue with officials of the [Uzbek] government is essential.” That dialogue “always raises, as I have and as others from our government continue to do so, our concerns about human rights and political freedoms. But at the same time we are working with the Uzbeks to make progress, and we are seeing some signs of that, and we would clearly like to deepen our relationship on all issues.”

Some at the time wondered what progress the U.S. was seeing from the regime in Uzbekistan, which is known to boil people alive and commit other horrific human rights abuses. One blogger facetiously pointed out that “They haven’t boiled anyone alive in at least 5 years!”

As Human Rights Watch noted however in January 2012,

Uzbekistan’s human rights record remains appalling, with no meaningful improvements in 2011. Torture remains endemic in the criminal justice system. Authorities continue to target civil society activists, opposition members, and journalists, and to persecute religious believers who worship outside strict state controls.

Freedom of expression remains severely limited. Government-sponsored forced child labor during the cotton harvest continues. Authorities continued to deny justice for the 2005 Andijan massacre in which government forces shot and killed hundreds of protestors, most of them unarmed.

Reacting to the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements, the Uzbek government increased the presence of security forces across the country and widened its already-tight control over the internet. Despite the government’s persistent refusal to address concerns about its abysmal record, the United States and European Union continued to advance closer relations with the Uzbek government in 2011, seeking cooperation in the war in Afghanistan.

In defending the resumption of military aid to this regime that Freedom House identifies as among “the worst of the worst,” Victoria Nuland offered assurances that Clinton has spoken “very frankly” with Uzbek President Islam Karimov about U.S. support for human rights and the desire to see reforms. Clinton also raised “individual cases” that Washington is especially concerned about, Nuland said.

“Nobody is shying away from having the tough conversation,” she added. “That said, we also have other interests and things that we need to protect in our relationship with Uzbekistan.”

Those “other interests and things” are primarily related to securing support from the dictatorship for the decade-old U.S. war in neighboring Afghanistan. As Freedom House described the situation in May 2012,

Uzbekistan has largely repaired relations with the EU and United States in recent years, in part by agreeing to the overland transportation of nonmilitary supplies to support NATO operations in Afghanistan. The rapprochement gained new momentum in 2011, as NATO increased transit traffic, the United States approved waivers for Uzbekistan on some human-rights related sanctions, and high-level visits between U.S., European, and Uzbek officials resumed.

The U.S. reconciliation with Uzbekistan however has not resulted in any advances in human rights, with freedoms of speech and the press severely restricted, torture used pervasively in overcrowded prisons, and freedom of association tightly constrained. The country received Freedom House’s lowest possible score in its latest report, along with totalitarian states such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, the situation in the island monarchy of Bahrain continues to deteriorate despite U.S. assurances of progress and pleas from the human rights community for the United States to stop supplying the regime with military aid. In a letter to Hillary Clinton in September, several human rights organizations pointed out that “the security forces of the Government of Bahrain continue to engage in human rights violations against non-violent, pro-democracy protesters.” The groups urged the State Department “to immediately suspend further U.S. military assistance and arms transfers to the responsible units, as required by law.”

The letter notes that

Bahrain Watch has visually documented the use of some U.S. origin weapons during the initial phase of protests (February-March 2011). [5] Members of the BDF can be seen in videos and photos attacking non-violent and unarmed pro-democracy protesters with U.S.-supplied arms, including M4 rifles sold to Bahrain as part of a 2008 arms sales package and .50 caliber machine guns mounted on M113 armored personnel carriers, of which the United States is the sole supplier to Bahrain. Again, we assume that the State Department has knowledge of which units operate U.S.-supplied arms, and that it has notified the Government of Bahrain that these units are ineligible to receive further U.S. taxpayer funded assistance until it takes the steps required by FAA 620M.

It further points out that Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act (the “Leahy Law”) stipulates that “No assistance shall be furnished under this Act or the Arms Export Control Act to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

In offering such “credible information” to Secretary of State Clinton, the groups argue that attacks by the police and other security forces on unarmed, non-violent, pro-democracy activists rise to the level of “gross human rights violations,” particularly so when the attacks resulted in death.

Yet, the United States has continued supplying aid despite ongoing crackdowns in Bahrain, even amid the State Department expressing concern that the recommendations made by the BICI have not been fully implemented.

“I think we’re concerned that a year has gone – almost a year has gone by and we’ve only seen about half of the recommendations go forward and that dialogue is not going forward between the government and the opposition,” Nuland said earlier this month.

Amnesty International however offers a harsher assessment, stating in its new report that “a year on, the promise of meaningful reform has been betrayed by the government’s unwillingness to implement key recommendations around accountability, including its failure to carry out independent, effective and transparent investigations into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and excessive use of force and to prosecute all those who gave the orders to commit human rights abuses.”

It calls on the U.S. to “immediately condemn human rights violations and match their condemnation with action, instead of satisfying themselves with the narrative of reform while ignoring the reality of repression.”

Proposed arms sales to Bahrain would violate international, domestic law

In his address to the UN General Assembly yesterday, President Barack Obama praised the government of Bahrain for taking unspecified “steps toward reform and accountability.” He was apparently referring to the cooperation that Bahrain has shown with an investigation into anti-government protests it has systematically crushed, and with the plans for holding by-elections Saturday (expected to be boycotted by the main Shiite opposition bloc).

The elections are for seats left vacant in the 40-member parliament following the resignation of 18 MPs from Al-Wefaq, the Gulf state’s largest opposition group, who quit in protest over a brutal crackdown by security forces on peaceful demonstrators.

“We’re pleased with that,” said Obama,

but more is required. America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc — the Wifaq — to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people. We believe the patriotism that binds Bahrainis together must be more powerful than the sectarian forces that would tear them apart. It will be hard, but it is possible.

While Obama was expressing these cheerful and opitimistic thoughts, human rights groups were reiterating longstanding calls for the United States to halt military aid to the island monarchy.

In particular, Human Rights Watch yesterday called on the U.S. to “delay a proposed arms sale to Bahrain until it ends abuses against peaceful critics of the ruling family and takes meaningful steps toward accountability for serious human rights violations.”

The Defense Department, HRW reported, notified Congress on September 14, 2011, of a proposed sale of armored Humvees and missiles to Bahrain worth $53 million. The proposed arms sale, apparently the first since the beginning of Bahrain’s crackdown on protests earlier this year, would include 44 “Armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs),” wire-guided and other missiles and launchers, as well as related equipment and training.

“This is exactly the wrong move after Bahrain brutally suppressed protests and is carrying out a relentless campaign of retribution against its critics,” said Maria McFarland, deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “It will be hard for people to take U.S. statements about democracy and human rights in the Middle East seriously when, rather than hold its ally Bahrain to account, it appears to reward repression with new weapons.”

In Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the Shiite majority has been protesting its lack of civil rights and second class status in the government. The Sunni minority government has brutally repressed the demonstrations, even targeting doctors who provide medical attention to injured protesters. The government has prevented human rights organizations from visiting the country since mid-April and tightly restricts access for journalists.

In a country of about 525,000 citizens, since the beginning of protests in mid-February, human rights groups say 34 people have been killed, more than 1,400 people arrested, as many as 3,600 people fired from their jobs and four people died in custody after torture. Human Rights Watch has called it “a systematic and comprehensive crackdown to punish and intimidate government critics and to end dissent root and branch.”

The New York Times last week reported of activists being forced to eat feces in prison and high-ranking Shiite bureaucrats compelled to crawl in their offices like infants. Human rights groups say 43 Shiite mosques and religious structures have been systematically destroyed or damaged in the government’s campaign of retribution.

Doctors and other medics who treated injured protestors during the unrest have been put on trial in military courts, “further undermining Bahrain’s claim to respect human rights,” as Human Rights First has stated.

“Trying civilians in military courts that offer inadequate legal protections is a sham process,” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “It exposes the Bahraini Government’s real intentions to crack down on peaceful activists. The United States Government should publicly condemn these trials and make clear that Bahrain’s decision to prosecute people for peacefully expressing their views will have consequences for the relationship between the United States and Bahrain.”

Yet despite this crackdown, there have been no calls from the Obama administration to impose sanctions or even halt U.S. military aid. Bahrain received $19 million in military aid for the fiscal year 2010, and this fiscal year, the island monarchy is on track to receive $19.5 million.

Further, the U.S. approved $200 million in military sales from American companies to Bahrain in 2010, months before the monarchy began its harsh crackdown. Much involved aircraft and military electronics, but the U.S. also licensed $760,000 in exports of rifles, shotguns and assault weapons.

In March of this year, following Bahrain’s initial crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, acting Asst. Sec. Miguel Rodriguez wrote in a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that “the administration is reevaluating its procedures for reviewing U.S. security assistance and defense sales during periods of domestic unrest and violence and has specifically included Bahrain in this reassessment.”

Leahy, who heads a Senate subcommittee overseeing foreign aid, had asked the State Dept. to determine whether Bahrain’s forces had committed any human rights violations that could necessitate a cut-off in assistance, as mandated by the Conventional Arms Transfer policy.

The Conventional Arms Transfer policy requires the U.S. to consider “the human rights, terrorism and proliferation record of the recipient and the potential for misuse of the export in question.”

Yet, it appears that with the Defense Department’s notification of a proposed sale of Humvees and missiles, these requirements are being cast aside. The same could also be said of the United States’ obligations under international law.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

As the world’s leading conventional arms exporter, the United States plays a significant role in deaths of thousands of civilians around the world. A positive step towards ending this ongoing calamity would be to respect the laws on the books, both at the international level and U.S. domestic law, starting with the proposed sale of Humvees and missiles to Bahrain.

Obama’s Middle East ‘reset’ speech: A visual response

Today, President Barack Obama gave what was billed as a historic speech charting a new course for U.S. policy towards North Africa, the Middle East and the Arab world at large.


What follows is a pictorial response.

For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.  Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights.  Two leaders have stepped aside.  More may follow.  And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security, by history and by faith.

Today, I want to talk about this change — the forces that are driving it and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security.


There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years.  In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat.

So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country.  Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands.  And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home — day after day, week after week — until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.

The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds.  For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region:  countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks.

We believe people everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut-off in energy supplies.  As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.

Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.  Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.


Given that this mistrust runs both ways — as Americans have been seared by hostage-taking and violent rhetoric and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens — a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.

And that’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.  I believed then — and I believe now — that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.  The status quo is not sustainable.

Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.

So we face a historic opportunity.  We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.  There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.  Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise.  But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.

The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.

The United States supports a set of universal rights.  And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders  — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.

Let me be specific.  First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.

That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia, where the stakes are high — as Tunisia was at the vanguard of this democratic wave, and Egypt is both a longstanding partner and the Arab world’s largest nation.  Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions, and responsible regional leadership.  But our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.

Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have thus far been answered by violence.  The most extreme example is Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi launched a war against his own people, promising to hunt them down like rats.  As I said when the United States joined an international coalition to intervene, we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force — no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change — with change that’s consistent with the principles that I’ve outlined today.  That’s true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.  And that’s true today in Bahrain.

Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security.  We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.

For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region.  For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.  For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.  Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself — by itself — against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.  The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.  And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region.

The United States supports a set of universal rights.  And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders  — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.

For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar.

Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire.  Our people fought a painful Civil War that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved.  And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union — organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”


Are you gonna eat that?

U.S. reconsiders Middle East arms sales, but not over human rights concerns

After months of human rights and arms control organizations calling for the cutting of U.S. military aid to repressive regimes in the Middle East engaged in brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy movements, it appears the United States is beginning to reconsider its arms transfers to the region.

At a May 12 hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, testified that the U.S. was looking at the long-term implications of arms trading in the Middle East, and had put some transactions on hold.

But it was clear that the concern over the arming of repressive regimes was not based on principles of human rights or international law, but rather the geopolitical reality of shifting U.S. interests in the region. With regimes on the verge of collapse, the U.S. appears to be concerned that the weapons it sells to friendly dictators may fall into the wrong hands.

In Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the Shiite majority continues to demonstrate against its lack of civil rights and its second class status in the government. The Sunni minority government has brutally repressed the demonstrations, even targeting doctors who provide medical attention to injured protesters.

Since the beginning of protests in mid-February, scores of protesters have been killed and many others have gone missing. According to opposition groups, over 800 anti-government activists, including 17 women, have been arrested.

The United Nations High Commissioner for human rights has called on Bahrain to free political prisoners and allow an independent probe into reports of torture.

“My office has also received reports of severe torture against human rights defenders who are currently in detention … There must be independent investigations of these cases of death in detention and allegations of torture,” Navi Pillay said in a statement released on May 5.

The Bahraini regime has also engaged in a campaign of cultural genocide, targeting, in particular Shiite mosques.

The U.S. provided Bahrain $19 million for the fiscal year 2010, and this fiscal year, the island monarchy is on track to receive $19.5 million in military aid.

The government in Yemen is also using excessive force to crack down on civilian protesters. More than 170 people are reported to have been killed since the unrest began in January, reports BBC, with three more added to the list on Friday.

Last Wednesday, Amnesty International called on the Yemeni authorities to stop using unnecessary deadly force against anti-government protesters.

“Security forces in Yemen must be immediately stopped from using live ammunition on unarmed protesters,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Yet, according to the Congressional Research Service, the Obama administration requested $106 million in U.S. economic and military assistance for Yemen in 2011, and for 2012, it has requested $116 million in economic and military aid.

A coalition of 19 human rights groups based in the Middle East wrote on April 12,

[T]he continuation of the despotic campaign against human rights defenders and political groups that are calling for profound democratic reforms reflect complicity and lack of political will from international actors, particularly the US and EU. These actors remain to prefer securing their strategic interests in the Gulf region by choosing to sustain the political stability of repressive regimes, turn a blind eye to the people’s aspirations for democracy, and remain silent on massive and systematic human rights violations in this region of the world.

But rather than raising the issue of human rights or U.S. compliance with international law — which prohibits aid to countries that commit systematic human rights violations — Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed concern that arms sales to certain countries may no longer be advancing U.S. foreign policy interests.

At the May 12 hearing, Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen asked Ellen Tauscher, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the State Department, if she can “assure this committee that arms sales proposals are based on well-formulated, focused and realistic capability requirements?”

The Chairwoman pointed to a General Accounting Office report that claims that “State and DOD did not consistently document how arms transfers to Gulf countries advanced U.S. foreign policy and national security goals.”

“Are you confident,” Ros-Lehtinen asked, “that all sales comply with U.S. conventional arms transfer policy?”

Tauscher assured the Committee that arms transfers are done in consultation with allies and with the Congress. “The answer is yes,” she said, “we are confident that arms are going where they are supposed to be going,” and do not fall into the wrong hands.

There are indications, however, that there are some changes taking place regarding arms transfers to the Middle East, in light of the ongoing rebellions in the region.

“Historic change of this magnitude will inevitably prompt us, as well as our colleagues throughout government, to reassess current policy approaches to ensure they still fit with the changing landscape,” said Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, in a May 3 speech.

He went on to say,

It is important to emphasize that arms transfers are a tool to advance U.S. foreign policy. And therefore when U.S. foreign policy interests, goals, and objectives shift, evolve, and transform over time, so will our arms transfer policy.

In the current dynamic geopolitical environment, it is natural that we take a look at our policies and approaches. For instance, we in PM are taking a close look at the Conventional Arms Transfer policy. This policy has suited the United States well since it was enacted just after the end of the Cold War. But it is time to dust off its pages and make sure that it reflects the reality of today. We don’t know yet what specific changes, if any, are needed. But in light of sweeping transformation it is essential that we, as well as our colleagues in other government agencies, assess current processes and procedures toward the region. We simply cannot operate as if it’s business as usual. U.S. foreign policy is not immune to geopolitical change and therefore neither is U.S. arms transfer policy.

It is enlightening that Shapiro and others are highlighting the importance of complying with the Conventional Arms Transfer policy, but remaining silent on the requirement of this policy to ensure that arms transfers are consistent with international agreements and arms control initiatives.

The Conventional Arms Transfer policy also requires the U.S. to consider “the human rights, terrorism and proliferation record of the recipient and the potential for misuse of the export in question.”

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

As the Arms Control Association reported on March 31, of the 28 countries for which Congress was notified of foreign military sales last year, according to the State Department’s own human rights reports, more than a third (11) of the states “failed to guarantee freedom of speech, association, and assembly, as well as a free press.” Further, torture, arbitrary arrest, and discrimination remained a problem in many of these same states. (Spreadsheet and further explanation available here.)

As Congress begins to scrutinize U.S. arms transfers in light of the political changes in the Middle East, the human rights and international law dimension should be part of the equation. But it is clear that the last thing on anyone’s mind is how U.S. policy conforms with human rights standards, even as unthinkable atrocities unfold in countries like Bahrain and Yemen.

With the profound changes taking place in the Middle East, it is sobering to realize that the only change we can expect in the USA is which thuggish regime we might be arming next week in the advancement of “U.S. national interests.”

U.S. silent over hospitalized Bahraini hunger striker

Bahraini activist Zaynab al-Khawaja

A 27-year-old Bahraini woman who launched a hunger strike last week in protest of the violent arrest of her husband and father was taken to the hospital yesterday, so ill that she could not talk or move, said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

CNN is reporting that she was released after refusing doctors to administer an intravenous tube.

Zaynab al-Khawaja is the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini human rights activist who was severely beaten by Bahraini police and arrested earlier this month. Her husband, brother-in-law and uncle were also arrested, accused of taking part in peaceful protests against the Bahraini regime of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. None of them have been seen since being taken into custody.

Zaynab  wrote the following letter to President Obama and began her hunger strike on April 12, 2011, pledging that she will refuse food until all four men are released.

Mr. President,

I write to you from Bahrain, after living through horrible injustice that I would never wish upon anyone in the world. Security forces attacked my home, broke our doors with sledgehammers, and terrified my family. Without any warning, without an arrest warrant and without giving any reasons; armed, masked men attacked my father. Although they said nothing, we all know that my father’s crime is being a human rights activist. My father was grabbed by the neck, dragged down a flight of stairs and then beaten unconscious in front of me. He never raised his hand to resist them, and the only words he said were “I can’t breathe”. Even after he was unconscious the masked men kept kicking and beating him while cursing and saying that they were going to kill him. This is a very real threat considering that in the past two weeks alone three political prisoners have died in custody. The special forces also beat up and arrested my husband and brother-in-law.

Since their arrest, 3 days ago, we have heard nothing. We do not know where they are and whether they are safe or not. In fact, we still have no news of my uncle who was arrested 3 weeks ago, when troops put guns to the heads of his children and beat his wife severely.

Having studied in America, I have seen how strongly your people believe in freedom and democracy. Even through these horrible times many of the people supporting me are Americans who never thought their government would stand by dictators and against freedom-loving people. To the American people I send my love and gratitude.

I chose to write to you and not to my own government because the Alkhalifa regime has already proven that they do not care about our rights or our lives.

When you were sworn in as president of the United States, I had high hopes. I thought: here is a person who would have never become a president if it were not for the African-American fight for civil liberties; he will understand our fight for freedom. Unfortunately, so far my hopes have been shattered. I might have misunderstood. What was it you meant Mr. president? YES WE CAN… support dictators? YES WE CAN… help oppress pro-democracy protesters? YES WE CAN… turn a blind eye to a people’s suffering?

Our wonderful memories have all been replaced by horrible ones. Our staircase still has traces of my father’s blood. I sit in my living room and can see where my father and husband were thrown face down and beaten. I see their shoes by the door and remember they were taken barefoot. As a daughter and as a wife I refuse to stay silent while my father and husband are probably being tortured in Bahraini prisons. As a mother of a one-year-old who wants her father and grandfather back, I must take a stand. I will not be helpless. Starting 6pm Bahrain time tonight I will go on a hunger strike. I demand the immediate release of my family members. My father: Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. My husband: Wafi Almajed. My brother-in-law: Hussein Ahmed. My uncle: Salah Alkhawaja.

I am writing this letter to let you know, that if anything happens to my father, my husband, my uncle, my brother-in-law, or to me, I hold you just as responsible as the AlKhalifa regime. Your support for this monarchy makes your government a partner in crime. I still have hope that you will realize that freedom and human rights mean as much to a Bahraini person as it does to an American, Syrian or a Libyan and that regional and political considerations should not be prioritized over liberty and human rights.

I ask of you to look into your beautiful daughters’ eyes tonight and think to yourself what you are personally willing to sacrifice in order to make sure they can sleep safe at night, that they can grow up with hope rather than fear and heartache, that they can have their father and grandfathers embrace to run to when they are hurt or in need of support. Last night my one-year-old daughter went knocking on our bedroom door calling for her father, the first word she ever learnt. It tore my heart to pieces. How do you explain to a one-year-old that her father is imprisoned? I need to look into my daughter’s eyes tomorrow, next week, in the years to come, and tell her I did all that I could to protect her family and future.

For my daughter’s sake, for her future, for my father’s life, for the life of my husband, to unite my family again, I will begin my hunger strike.

Zainab Alkhawaja
11th April 2011

Washington, however, has remained silent over the recent bloodshed in Bahrain, and U.S. military aid continues to flow. The U.S. provided Bahrain $19 million for the fiscal year 2010, and this fiscal year, the island monarchy is on track to receive $19.5 million in military aid. Human rights organizations have called for cutting off the aid, pointing to Western enabling of gross human rights violations. A coalition of 19 human rights groups based in the Middle East wrote on April 12,

[T]he continuation of the despotic campaign against human rights defenders and political groups that are calling for profound democratic reforms reflect complicity and lack of political will from international actors, particularly the US and EU. These actors remain to prefer securing their strategic interests in the Gulf region by choosing to sustain the political stability of repressive regimes, turn a blind eye to the people’s aspirations for democracy, and remain silent on massive and systematic human rights violations in this region of the world.

It could also be pointed out that by continuing to support despotic regimes such as the Bahraini monarchy, the U.S. is violating both international and domestic law.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

State Department human rights report exposes U.S. violations of international law

The U.S. State Department’s annual report on the global human rights situation was released yesterday, coinciding with ongoing rebellions in the Arab world and continued repression of pro-democracy demonstrators by authoritarian U.S. allies. The report provides valuable insight into the human rights practices of governments around the world, but is perhaps even more useful in analyzing the duplicitous nature of U.S. foreign policy — often carried out in violation of international law.

In releasing the report, Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, explained that it is intended to demonstrate the United States’ “commitment to the protection of human rights around the world.”

The report serves “as a source of information for our own policy making,” she said. “As we are dealing with different countries, we consult this report, we use it in order to be able to advance our work.”

Yet, there is little evidence of this in practice, at least in situations in which economics and geopolitics trump principles. Despite the fact that international and domestic law requires the United States to cut military aid to governments that systematically violate the rights of their people, U.S. aid continues to flow to countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, which are using excessive force to crush pro-democracy rebellions.

In the State Department’s report on Bahrain, for example, the U.S. notes that in 2010:

Citizens did not have the right to change their government. Trafficking in persons and restrictions on the rights of foreign resident workers continued to be significant problems. There were numerous reports of abuse against foreign workers, particularly female domestic workers. There were many reports of domestic violence against women and children. Discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, nationality, and sect, especially against the Shia majority population, persisted. There were multiple allegations of mistreatment and torture, especially of Shia activists associated with rejectionist and opposition groups. Authorities arbitrarily arrested activists, journalists, and other citizens and detained some individuals incommunicado. Some detainees did not always have adequate access to their attorneys. At least two of the detainees were dismissed from their publicsector jobs prior to the commencement of judicial proceedings. The government restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and some religious practices. There were instances of the government imposing and enforcing official and unofficial travel bans on political activists. The Shia are underrepresented in positions of leadership in the civil service, police, and security forces.

It is little wonder then that Bahrainis would be rising up to challenge their repressive government. However, rather than stand unequivocally with the demonstrators, as the U.S. has done in Libya and in Iran, the U.S. seems to want it both ways: express rhetorical support for the rights of the people, while continuing to financially back the Bahraini monarchy, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

In an interview with Daivd Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press, Ambassador Susan Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations said,

Well, we’ve been very clear with our partners in Bahrain that they ought to exercise restraint, that there’s no place for violence against peaceful protesters there or anywhere else, and we’ve condemned that violence. We’ve had outreach from President Obama, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Clinton and other senior officials, urging that restraint and encouraging what is now transpiring, which seems to be the pullback of the military forces and now a real effort to engage the opposition in a broad-based dialogue that will enable the people’s aspirations to be discussed and, we hope, respected.

Even while expressing this “hope,” however, the U.S. continues to enable the very crackdown that it criticizes. The U.S. provided Bahrain $19 million for the fiscal year 2010, which ended on September 30, 2010. This fiscal year, the island monarchy is on track to receive $19.5 million in military aid. So far, there has been no indication that this aid will be frozen.

A similar situation is playing out in Yemen, which the U.S. State Department report describes as “a republic whose law provides for presidential election by popular vote.”

But the report makes clear that the human rights situation in the country is grave, and that in practice there is no opportunity for the citizens to effect change through democratic processes:

The main government human rights abuses included severe limitations on citizens’ ability to change their government due to, among other factors, corruption, fraudulent voter registration, administrative weakness, and close political-military relationships at high levels. Arbitrary and unlawful killings, politically motivated disappearances, and reports of torture and other physical abuse accompanied the use of excessive force against civilians in internal conflict. Prisons and detention centers were in poor condition, and some private, largely tribal, ones operated without legal authorization or control. Arbitrary arrest and detention, sometimesincommunicado, and denial of fair public trial were widespread. Official impunity was common. The government restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech and of the press, including access to the Internet, peaceful assembly, and religious freedom. The judiciary was weak, corrupt, and lacked independence.Official corruption and lack of government transparency were severe problems. International humanitarian groups estimated more than 300,000 persons were internally displaced as a result of the Saada conflict. Pervasive discrimination against women continued, as did early marriage, child labor, and child trafficking. Discrimination on the basis of religion, sect, and ethnicity was common.

As in Bahrain and other countries in the region, the people of Yemen have risen up to demand change, and the government has responded with brutal repression. More than 300 people have reportedly been killed and several hundred others injured in nationwide protests against the rule of Yemeni President Saleh over the past two months.

As Bloomberg reported on Thursday, Saleh’s “treatment of the protest movement, now in its third month, has hardened. The shooting of 46 protesters by police and snipers in the capital, Sana’a, on March 18 sparked a wave of defections from the regime.

“This week, at least a dozen protesters were killed in the town of Taiz when they battled with police, and in Sana’a there were reports that soldiers from a rebel-led division clashed with Saleh’s supporters.”

Like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Saleh has justified his violent crushing of protests by arguing that his downfall would lead to a greater threat from Islamic terrorists. The difference is that Saleh is facing down mass protests and defections with backing from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

As Bloomberg reports:

This year’s wave of Arab unrest has shown the U.S. is willing to dump longtime partners like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as well as more recent ones like Qaddafi. In Yemen, the poorest Arab state and already a base for al-Qaeda attacks, Saleh’s army, government and much of his tribal base have abandoned the president, yet the U.S. is reluctant to do so. The standoff adds to the risk of a Libya-style conflict as violence escalates.

“Two weeks ago, it was really looking like game over for Saleh, then all of a sudden he seemed to have gotten a second wind,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University. “The only two foreign voices that matter for Yemen are the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. They are scrambling now with the reality that Saleh’s days may be numbered.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that he saw the possible fall of Saleh as a “real problem.” Mark Toner, acting deputy spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said on April 4 that while Saleh must respond to public demands, “it’s not for us to impose a solution.”

Human rights organizations have repeatedly called for Washington to halt aid to the country. “The United States should back up its words condemning the carnage with action, and halt military aid to Yemen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director.

Washington has provided “more than $US 300 million in military and security aid to Yemen in the past five years,” the New York-based group said.

The Pentagon, however, is making clear that military aid will continue to flow. As Reuters reported on Tuesday:

The United States is urging a negotiated transition in Yemen “as quickly as possible” but so far has not cut off military aid seen as vital to the fight against al Qaeda, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, is clinging to power after weeks of mass demonstrations demanding an end to his 32-year rule.

The continued financial support to both Bahrain and Yemen violate both U.S. and international law.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” The Arms Export Control Act authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

In releasing the report on human rights, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the “struggle for human rights begins by telling the truth.”

Societies flourish,” she said, “when they address human rights problems instead of suppressing them. Freedom from fear makes economies grow as citizens invest, innovate, and participate. Where human rights matter, children grow up with the precious belief that they matter, too; that they should be able to live in dignity and shape their own destinies. People everywhere deserve no less. And we hope that this report will give comfort to the activists, will shine a spotlight on the abuses, and convince those in government that there are other and better ways.

Perhaps it is time for the United States to heed its own words, and stop enabling the very abuses that it condemns.

Demand for Libyan compliance highlights U.S. hypocrisy on Bahrain

As Talking Points Memo reports today,

President Barack Obama and his British and French counterparts are demanding that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi immediately comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution creating a no-fly zone aimed at protecting civilians from attacks.

Obama phoned British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy Thursday evening after the Security Council vote on the resolution authorizing the no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to protect the Libyan people from Qaddafi’s forces, the White House said in a statement.

Military intervention against Libya may start within “several hours,” French government spokesman Francois Baroin said in an interview on RTL radio, according to a Bloomberg report.

Ostensibly, the tough stance on Libya has been prompted by Qaddafi’s brutal repression of the Libyan people, who like others throughout the region, have risen up against a firmly entrenched dictator for greater freedom and democracy in their country. But even as the U.S. takes a tough stance against Libya, including the implicit threat of force, U.S. military aid continues to flow to nearby Bahrain, which is also carrying out systematic human rights abuses against its people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called King Hamad of the Gulf state yesterday to express his “deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians, including, allegedly, against medical personnel,” a UN statement said.


He also “noted that such actions could be in breach of international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Amnesty International documented in a report issued yesterday how security forces have used live ammunition and extreme force against demonstrators without warning and prevented medical staff  from helping the wounded. Amnesty identified some of the ammunition found in the aftermath of the raid on Pearl Roundabout on February 17, which include U.S.-made tear gas canisters and U.S.-made 37mm rubber multi-baton rounds.

Amnesty International called on governments who supply weapons to Bahrain “to immediately suspend the transfer of weapons, munitions and related equipment that could be used to commit further human rights violations, and to urgently review all arms supplies and training support to Bahrain’s military, security and police forces.”

But even as the UN and human rights groups intensify their criticism of the Bahraini government’s crackdown on protesters, U.S. government aid continues to flow. This is despite the fact that international and domestic law requires that the U.S. cut military aid to states that commit violations of human rights.

According to the International Law Commission (ILC), the official UN body that codifies customary international law,

A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State” (Article 16 of the International Law Commission, “Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts,” (2001) which were commended by the General Assembly, A/RES/56/83).

Further, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act stipulates that “no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” and the Arms Export Control Act  authorizes the supply of U.S. military equipment and training only for lawful purposes of internal security, “legitimate self-defense,” or participation in UN peacekeeping operations or other operations consistent with the UN Charter.

The U.S. provided Bahrain $19 million for the fiscal year 2010, and this fiscal year, the island monarchy is on track to receive $19.5 million in military aid.

So why the two different approaches to Libya and Bahrain? How is it that in one case, the U.S. is demanding under threat of military action that Libya complies with international law and in the other, the U.S. turns a blind eye to gross human rights abuses?

Bahrain, a former a British colony, currently hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. While the population is mostly Shiite, the royal family is Sunni and closely allied with Saudi Arabia. The Shiites are discriminated against by law, including a legal prohibition against serving in Bahrain’s army. So, in Bahrain, the people are coming out in mass protests against a regime solidly supported by the West and reactionary Arab forces like the Saudis. Further, if the Bahraini government were to fall, it could be replaced by a Shiite regime sympathetic to Iran, the United States government’s great nemesis in the region.

Libya, on the other hand, has consistently antagonized the West. It recently forced foreign oil companies, especially France’s Total, to agree to take a much smaller percentage of the oil and gas yielded from their wells, under threat of renationalization. In Libya, the armed rebel groups have Western support. The leaders of the U.S., Britain and France have all called for the toppling of the Libyan government, and have continually threatened to intervene unless Qaddafi steps down.

Thus two very different struggles are taking place in the region, and two very different responses are being made by the U.S. and other Western powers. It appears for now that Qaddafi is complying with the Security Council resolution, declaring a ceasefire with the rebels. But the situation remains tense, and the possibility of Western military action remains real.

If it comes to war, the U.S. should at least be forced to answer how it is that it can apply two such wildly divergent policies in the region — in one case holding up international law as an inviolable principle, and in the other disregarding it completely.

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