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.

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Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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