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.”

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