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We arm the world: U.S. weapons sales fueling global conflict


It’s been less than three years since the adoption of the historic Arms Trade Treaty, and already the United States is leading the way in flouting this landmark accord, violating the letter and spirit of the international agreement by pumping the world full of weapons – fueling global conflict and undermining efforts to uphold human rights and stem the flow of refugees.

As the most recent data confirms, the U.S. remains the world’s largest supplier of weapons systems, with the monetary value of its arms agreements increasing steadily in recent years, despite the global security situation slipping further into chaos and a major refugee crisis destabilizing the entire European continent.

According to arms researcher Jeff Abramson, citing figures from the Congressional Research Service and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:

The United States concluded $36.2 billion in arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2014, the most recent year detailed in the report. That total was up nearly $10 billion from the 2013 total and constituted just more than half of all global 2014 agreements, which were valued at $71.8 billion, slighly above the 2013 total of $70.2 billion. Nearly $30 billion of U.S. agreements in 2014 were with developing countries, including large-value pacts with Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.

As a recent article by William Hartung further explains, the ballooning U.S. arms sales appear to be a coordinated strategy to wage proxy wars in the Middle East, based on a desire to shape events while avoiding more direct U.S. engagement (and meanwhile make billions of dollars in profits for U.S. arms manufacturers):

The Obama administration has made arms sales a central tool of its foreign policy, in part as a way of exerting military influence without having to put “boots on the ground” in large numbers, as the Bush administration did in Iraq—with disastrous consequences.

The Obama administration’s push for more Mideast arms sales has been a bonanza for U.S. weapons contractors, who have made increased exports a primary goal as Pentagon spending levels off.  Not only do foreign sales boost company profits, but they also help keep open production lines that would otherwise have to close due to declining orders from the Pentagon.

When it comes to the individual companies profiting off of the global arms bazaar, the following list drives home the point that U.S. arms manufacturers shoulder a disproportionate share of the responsibility for so much of the world’s death and suffering. In fact, six of the ten largest arms-producing companies are U.S.-based, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute:

  1  Lockheed Martin (US)
  2  Boeing (US)
  3  BAE Systems (UK)
  4  Raytheon (US)
  5  Northrop Grumman (US)
  6  General Dynamics (US)
  7  EADS (trans-Europe)
  8  United Technologies (US)
  9  Finmeccanica (Italy)
10  Thales (France)

While all of these arms sales are having a destabilizing effect across the world, human rights and arms control advocates are raising particular concerns over the flow of the U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia, which is carrying out a brutal and indiscriminate military operation against civilians in neighboring Yemen.

As a major new report by the Control Arms Coalition explains,

The transfer of arms and ammunition to Saudi Arabia in particular is fuelling the conflict. Saudi Arabia was among the biggest markets for arms exporters during the past decade, and in 2014 became the largest importer of defence equipment worldwide. Many exporters to Saudi Arabia are States Parties or Signatories to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). …

The ATT now applies in full to all States Parties to the Treaty for whom it has entered into force. For those countries, the serious violations of IHL and IHRL in Yemen, and continuing transfers to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in that context, represent a major test of their willingness to implement their legal obligations.

The United States signed the ATT in September 2013, and although the treaty has not been ratified by the Senate, with 130 signatories and 82 full states parties it is well on its way to becoming a peremptory norm of international law, also known as jus cogens, as defined by Oxford as “principles which form the norms of international law that cannot be set aside.”

Nevertheless, according to the Control Arms Coalition,

The US remains a significant supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia. Licensing data for 2015 has not yet been made available, but during the year, the State Department approved six major arms sales to the country, collectively worth US$20.8bn. They include the proposed transfer of 10 MH-60R and nine UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters,62 600 Patriot missiles, 63 battleships and missiles,64 and tank and artillery ammunition for the Royal Saudi Land Forces. In November the State Department notified Congress of plans to sell 18,440 aircraft bombs (both guided and general purpose) to Saudi Arabia, in a deal worth US$1.29bn. The package also included 1,500 warheads, as well as thousands of parts for these bombs such as fuses and tail kits to modify guidance systems.

The intransigence of the United States and its closest allies on the issue of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia compelled the Control Arms Coalition to issue a stinging rebuke today, criticizing the lack of progress this week at the Extraordinary Meeting of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, which as Control Arms pointed out was only extraordinary because of the “refusal of States to actually discuss arms transfers.”

In a press release entitled “ATT Extraordinary Meeting Unfortunately Far Too Ordinary,” the coalition pointed out:

Despite irrefutable evidence of serious violations of international law in a conflict that has killed more than 35,000 people, several States Parties and Signatories to the ATT have continued sending weapons to Saudi Arabia, in violation of the Treaty’s obligations. Control Arms therefore made a request to the meeting for an Agenda item to discus the issue. This request was rejected by the President on the grounds that it would be “fraught with danger” to discuss the topic without sufficient time.

Prompted by the intolerable human suffering taking place in Yemen, campaigners are calling on governments “to set their hypocrisy aside and stop selling billions of dollars’ worth of deadly weapons to Saudi Arabia being used to attack Yemeni civilians.”

In a broader sense, the United States should also rethink its entire policy of flooding the planet with weapons – as this is obviously a destabilizing factor across the world, and a major contributor to both human rights violations and the ongoing refugee crisis.

U.S.-supplied cluster bombs terrorizing civilians in Yemen

Human Rights Watch issued a damning report yesterday offering new evidence that Saudi Arabia has been using U.S.-made and -supplied cluster munitions on civilians in war-torn Yemen, despite a nearly universal global ban on the weapons. Their use may violate both international and United States law, HRW pointed out.

The report, which includes photographs showing unexploded U.S. cluster bombs in Yemen, is putting new pressure on the United States over support for its close ally Saudi Arabia, at a time when an international campaign is growing for a moratorium on arms transfers to the human rights-abusing dictatorship.

“The Americans have sold arms and furnished training and expertise to a Saudi-led coalition that has faced widespread criticism for what rights groups call an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in nearly a year of fighting,” the New York Times reported.

As Human Rights Watch documented:

Recently transferred US-manufactured cluster munitions are being used in civilian areas contrary to US export requirements and also appear to be failing to meet the reliability standard required for US export of the weapons. …

Human Rights Watch believes the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of states operating in Yemen is responsible for all or nearly all of these cluster munition attacks because it is the only entity operating aircraft or multibarrel rocket launchers capable of delivering five of the six types of cluster munitions that have been used in the conflict.

Cluster bombs contain submunitions, or bomblets, that disperse widely and kill indiscriminately, especially when used in civilian areas. Many bomblets can fail to explode, effectively becoming landmines that continue to pose a threat to civilians for years to come.

cluster-Munitions how they work

Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the international Cluster Munition Coalition, noted that the use of these weapons violates international norms. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, as well as their US supplier, are blatantly disregarding the global standard that says cluster munitions should never be used under any circumstances,” he said. “The Saudi-led coalition should investigate evidence that civilians are being harmed in these attacks and immediately stop using them.”

John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said in a statement Sunday night: “We have seen the Human Rights Watch report, and are reviewing it. Obviously we remain deeply concerned by reports of harm to civilians and have encouraged the Saudi-led coalition to investigate reports of civilian harm.”

cluster-Munitions blu-108

Two BLU-108 canisters, from a CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon, found in the al-Amar area in northern Yemen. — HRW

While HRW points out that any use of any type of cluster munition should be condemned, there are two additional disturbing aspects to the use of the particular model being used in Yemen – CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons – which are notoriously unreliable, leaving unacceptable amounts of unexploded ordinance on the ground to terrorize civilians for years to come.

“First, U.S. export law prohibits recipients of cluster munitions from using them in populated areas, as the Saudi coalition has clearly been doing,” HRW said. “Second, U.S. export law only allows the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. But it appears that Sensor Fuzed Weapons used in Yemen are not functioning in ways that meet that reliability standard.”

The Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted in Dublin on May 30, 2008 by 107 states and signed in Oslo on Dec. 3, 2008. It became binding international law when it entered into force on Aug. 1, 2010. A total of 118 states have joined the Convention, as 98 States parties and 20 Signatories.

In the treaty, states parties have agreed to never use cluster munitions, nor “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions,” nor “assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.”

The U.S. is one of the few remaining holdouts, one of what the international community calls the “dirty dozen of cluster munitions.”

cluster-Munitions dirty dozen

In a Jan. 12 letter to President Obama, Megan Burke, the director of the Cluster Munition Coalition urged him to “demand that Saudi-led coalition members stop using cluster munitions,” and said the United States “should investigate its own role in the recent strikes.”

To add your name to an Avaaz petition calling on world leaders “to stand up and say ‘NO’ to Saudi Arabia and their atrocities,” click here.

Another U.S.-based petition, calling on Washington to “Stop Supporting – and Start Punishing – Saudi Arabia” is available here.

Would any of the U.S. presidential candidates not commit war crimes?

nuremberg hanging

If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged. – Noam Chomsky, 1990

In recent days, numerous commentators have criticized irresponsible discourse within the GOP presidential field over whether to reinstate torture and implement other war crimes – such as carpet bombing – as official U.S. policy. The 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, even felt compelled to weigh in this week by calling out the “loose talk” in the Republican race.

McCain took the Senate floor Tuesday to condemn remarks by his Republican colleagues regarding the use of torture, stating that “these statements must not go unanswered because they mislead the American people about the realities of interrogation, how to gather intelligence, what it takes to defend our security and at the most fundamental level, what we are fighting for as a nation and what kind of nation we are.”

john mccain gop torture quoteIndeed, with presidential frontrunner Donald Trump calling his chief rival Ted Cruz a “pussy” for hinting that he might show some degree of restraint in the use of torture, it’s clear that on the Republican side, the discussion has gone off the rails. This has led respected human rights groups to remind the U.S. of its moral and legal obligations not to engage in sadistic and cruel practices such as waterboarding.

“Waterboarding meets the legal definition of torture, and is therefore illegal,” recalled Human Rights First’s Raha Walla. “Torture under U.S. and international law means acts that cause severe mental or physical pain or suffering. There’s no question that waterboarding meets that definition.”

Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah also issued a rebuttal to the debate over waterboarding, which she described as “slow-motion suffocation.” She pointed out the obvious that “the atrocities of the armed group calling itself Islamic State and other armed groups don’t make waterboarding okay.” This was in response to statements by Trump and others that since Islamic State terrorists chop off people’s heads, the U.S. is right to respond with its own forms of brutality.

(“Do we win by being more like [the Islamic State]?” George Stephanopoulos asked Trump last Sunday. “Yes,” Trump responded. “I’m sorry. You have to do it that way.”)

Writing in The Guardian Wednesday, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith observed:

There was once a consensus that torture was immoral; even today, any sensible person knows torture is of little use if you want accurate information. Yet the current crop of Republican presidential candidates have been trying to outbid one another with promises of barbarism: Senator Ted Cruz confirmed that he favours simulated drowning, which he classifies as an “enhanced interrogation technique” (EIT) that falls short of torture. (The Spanish Inquisition was rather more honest, and called it tortura del agua.) “The Donald” immediately trumped his rival: he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”.

In a similar vein, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain and Dan Froomkin noted on Tuesday that the GOP is apparently competing over which candidate would commit the worst war crimes, including but not limited to torture and encompassing other atrocities such as carpet bombing. As the journalists pointed out:

In recent months, one candidate or another has promised to waterboard, do a “helluva lot worse than waterboarding,” repopulate Guantánamo, engage in wars of aggressionkill families of suspected terrorists, and “carpet bomb” Middle Eastern countries until we find out if “sand can glow in the dark.”

The over-the-top bombast plays well in front of self-selected Republican audiences — the crowd responded to the description of Cruz Monday night with full-throated chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” But such promises of future criminality from potential presidential nominees have outraged many legal experts.

While it is clearly troubling that the leading contenders for the Republican nomination are so eagerly trying to outdo each other on who would be the worst war criminal, what is perhaps equally troubling is that candidates on the Democratic side also seem committed to policies that could in fact qualify as war crimes.

It should be recalled that while the Republicans are speaking about hypothetical war crimes that they would like to commit if elected, there is a leading Democratic candidate who is already guilty of war crimes committed under her watch.

As Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a major proponent of armed intervention and regime change in Libya, which – despite occasional claims to the contrary – was in no way authorized by the UN Security Council, making it a breach of the UN Charter.

When the Libyan civil war began in mid-February 2011, Clinton stated unequivocally that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi “must go now, without further violence or delay.”

Despite Arab countries’ reservations about regime change, Clinton helped convince Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan that a simple no-fly zone would be insufficient and argued that aerial bombing would also be necessary. Clinton then persuaded Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that his country should abstain on the UN resolution authorizing force against Gaddafi, and she was instrumental in getting the rest of the Security Council members to approve Resolution 1973, which established a “no-fly zone.”

With this resolution secured, the U.S. promptly decided to overstep its authority, “interpreting” the authorization as carte blanche to implement a policy of regime change.

The Arab League, which had tentatively lent support to Resolution 1973, promptly objected to the bombing campaign. “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” said Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on March 20, 2011.

Despite the narrow limitations placed on the U.S. and NATO forces by the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone in order to protect civilians, the Western powers soon made it clear that their objective was not simply to protect civilians, but to aid the rebels in the their efforts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

This initial breach of international law was then compounded by subsequent war crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in the war’s aftermath.

“Scores of Libyan civilians who were not involved in the fighting were killed and many more injured, most in their homes, as a result of NATO airstrikes” in the bombing campaign to depose Gaddafi, Amnesty noted. “Regrettably,” continued Amnesty, “NATO has yet to address these incidents appropriately, including by establishing contact and providing information to the victims and their relatives about any investigation which might have been initiated.”

The war also led to an exacerbation of the security crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, fueling the civil war in nearby Syria and facilitating the rise of the Islamic State, as well as directly contributing to the refugee and migrant crisis that began to destabilize Europe.

Besides that disastrous foreign policy blunder, Clinton was also a primary supporter of the 21st century’s first major war of aggression, the 2003 unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq.

For years, Clinton was a vocal supporter of this war despite its numerous documented atrocities, defending her 2002 vote as senator to authorize the invasion as necessary to counter Saddam Hussein’s alleged (but ultimately nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction program. It wasn’t until last year – 13 years after the U.S. invasion – that she finally acknowledged that her support for that war had been a “mistake.”

The other Democratic presidential contender, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has been much more consistent in his opposition to both the Iraq war and the Libya intervention, but unfortunately has embraced other policies with questionable status under international law. He has said, for example, that as president, he would be willing to use drone strikes as liberally as President Obama has, despite serious questions about this policy’s legality.

In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press last October, host Chuck Todd asked Sanders if drones or special forces would play a role in his counter-terror plans.

“All of that and more,” Sanders said. “Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.”


A Yemeni boy (C) walks past a mural depicting a US drone and reading ‘ Why did you kill my family’ on December 13, 2013 in Yemen’s capital Sanaa.

Collateral damage by drones is not only terrible, but the very use of drones has been shown to lower the threshold for use of force, as demonstrated by a recent study by two U.S. academics.

In ‘The Ethics of Drone Strikes: Does Reducing the Cost of Conflict Encourage War?’ James Walsh and Marcus Schulzke report on how public attitudes towards the use of armed force change when unmanned drones are used in comparison to the deployment of other types of force. Analysis of the results show, write Walsh and Schulzke, “that participants are more willing to support the use of force when it involves drone strikes.”

This in turn makes U.S. military intervention more likely, as it does the inevitable collateral damage and war crimes that go along with it.

Besides drone strikes, it also appears that Sanders is committed to a Middle East policy that would empower one of the world’s worst human rights abusers to take a leading role in the region.

Saudi Arabia, despite its record as an egregious violator of human rights both at home and in neighboring countries such as Bahrain and Yemen, has long relied on the United States as its leading arms supplier.

As explained in a Congressional Research Service background paper published earlier this month:

Obama Administration officials have referred to the Saudi government as an important regional partner, and U.S. arms sales and related security cooperation programs have continued with congressional oversight. Since October 2010, Congress has been notified of proposed sales to Saudi Arabia of fighter aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs, armored vehicles, and related equipment and services, with a potential value of more than $100 billion.

Since March 2015, the U.S.-trained Saudi military has used U.S.-origin weaponry, U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence to carry out strikes in Yemen. Some Members of Congress have expressed skepticism about Saudi leaders’ commitment to combating extremism and the extent to which they share U.S. policy priorities. Nevertheless, U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism ties reportedly remain close, and Saudi forces have participated in some coalition strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria since 2014.

Thousands of civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes since March of last year, according to the UN, and Human Rights Watch field investigations have uncovered evidence that many airstrikes were unlawfully indiscriminate, hitting residential homes, markets, healthcare facilities, and schools where there was no military target.

To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia has been dropping cluster bombs on residential neighborhoods, which HRW describes as “serious violations of the laws of war” due to “the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions.”

“The deliberate or reckless use of cluster munitions in populated areas amounts to a war crime,” HRW said in a statement last month.

Despite these violations, Sanders has urged Saudi Arabia to become more involved in the fight against ISIS, specifically stating that the brutal dictators of Riyadh should “get their hands dirty” – prompting peace activist David Swanson to ask, “Who has dirtier hands than Saudi Arabia?”

While Sanders is still probably the least likely of the U.S. presidential contenders to embrace war crimes should he win the election this November – and certainly deserves points for calling out Hillary Clinton’s friendly relationship with Henry Kissinger, one of the most notorious American war criminals of the 20th century – he should keep in mind that even enabling atrocities of a third party such as Saudi Arabia can make a president culpable for these crimes.

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.

If Sanders wants to truly distinguish himself from Clinton – not to mention the blood-thirsty would-be war criminals on the Republican side – he should make clear that he would not only refrain from torture and wars of aggression, but also the enabling of war crimes by dubious allies such as Saudi Arabia, or for that matter Israel.

To add your name to a petition calling on the United States and other governments of the world to stop providing Saudi Arabia with weaponry until the Saudi government ends its military aggression and abuse of human rights, click here.

U.S. expresses concern over barrel bombs in Syria, looks the other way in Yemen

yemen saudi arabia united states

Led by the United States, the international community has in recent days grown increasingly critical of the Syrian government for its indiscriminate use of barrel bombs on civilian populations. President Barack Obama highlighted the issue in his address to the United Nations Monday, noting that Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children,” and Secretary of State John Kerry drove the point home Tuesday by calling on Russia and Iran to force Assad to stop using these weapons.

The Iranians and the Russians, Kerry said, are “in a position, in exchange perhaps for something that we might do, they might decide to keep Assad from dropping barrel bombs,” which are essentially oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel that are rolled out the back door of military helicopters. To be sure, they are heinous weapons which are most likely illegal under international conventions.

But what about the U.S.’s close ally in the region, Saudi Arabia? What sort of reaction is there for the Saudi regime’s use of barrel bombs on civilians in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen? Of course, when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s massive violations of human rights, including its use of both cluster bombs and barrel bombs, there is only deafening silence from Washington, which continues to shower Riyadh with military assistance.

The U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are likely a violation of the recently adopted Arms Trade Treaty, as Amnesty International explained in a fact sheet published last month. “In June-July 2015, Amnesty International researchers investigated eight airstrikes carried out by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in different parts of Yemen which resulted in scores of deaths and injuries to civilians, and demonstrated a clear failure to abide by the requirements of international humanitarian law,” noted Amnesty.

In response, Amnesty called for strict safeguards in the supply of weapons and their use In line the Arms Trade Treaty, which has been signed but not ratified by the United States:

Amnesty International is calling on States supplying weapons and ammunition to adopt a preventive approach and apply strict safeguards in order to mitigate and remove the substantial risk of the arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law; States must carry out rigorous risk assessments against strict human rights criteria before authorizing any arms transfer/military assistance; States must also implement robust post-delivery controls on all transfers. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition involved directly or indirectly in air strikes or other military operations must refrain from carrying out indiscriminate attacks or direct attacks on civilians, including through the use of unguided air bombardment in densely populated areas.

In another recent report, Amnesty International pointed out that its assistance “makes the United States partly responsible for civilian casualties resulting from unlawful attacks” in Yemen. Amnesty also noted that “the countries that supplied the weapons have a responsibility to ensure that they are not used to commit violations of international law.”

The human rights group further described the situation in Yemen as dire. “Prior to the conflict, more than half of Yemen’s population was in need of some humanitarian assistance,” according to Amnesty. “That number has now increased to more than 80 percent, while a coalition-imposed blockade on commercial imports remains in place in much of the country and the ability of international aid agencies to deliver desperately needed supplies continues to be hindered by the conflict.”

Not only is the United States fueling this humanitarian disaster with its no-questions-asked weapons transfers, it is also directly assisting the Saudis with in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support, and providing intelligence on target selection. It is also providing the Saudis banned cluster munitions which are being used against Yemeni civilians.

The U.S. is also directly killing Yemeni civilians through its drone strikes concentrated in the eastern part of the country, with attacks this month killing a number of innocent people. Altogether, since 2002 there have been at least 127 U.S. drone strikes on Yemen that have killed an estimated 100 civilians and injured hundreds more.

In addition, the U.S. government is providing crucial diplomatic support to the Saudi regime’s campaign at the United Nations to block a human rights inquiry into its assault on Yemen. A proposal submitted by the Netherlands last week calls for the UN Human Rights Council to launch a probe into abuses committed by all parties in Yemen, but Saudi Arabia and its key allies appear determined to prevent such an investigation.

“Saudi diplomats have robustly lobbied Asian, African and European states through their capitals or missions in Geneva,” reported the New York Times. While President Barack Obama has so far remained silent on the resolution, U.S. allies Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates “have argued for shelving [the] plans,” according to Foreign Policy journalist Colum Lynch.

Quite simply, without support from the United States military the Saudis would not be able to sustain its war either politically or logistically, lacking the capability to independently carry out airstrikes over Yemen for any period of time. Yet, when pressed about the U.S. support for Saudi war crimes, U.S. officials simply say, “I would refer you to the Saudis.”

This is why U.S. statements on Syria’s use of barrel bombs should be taken with a grain of salt. It is simply not credible for the United States to feign outrage over war crimes taking place in Syria while enabling war crimes taking place in Yemen. At the very least, there should be some consistency introduced to U.S. foreign policy which would both increase U.S. credibility and prevent the needless suffering of civilians.

Click here to sign a petition calling for a halt of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

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:

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

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?

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