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.”


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