Last week, Amnesty International published a report urging the international community to ban arms sales of any kind to countries in which there is a substantial risk that these arms will be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law.
The report analyzed arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen since 2005, finding that the principle weapons suppliers were Austria, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States.
The evidence is at times disturbing. In 2009, Finland authorized the sale of sniper rifles to Bahrain for “demonstration purposes.” Egyptian security forces (mostly from the Ministry of Interior) killed hundreds of peaceful protestors with shotguns and automatic weapons obtained from the U.S. government as well as other U.S. commercial suppliers. Libya used Spanish-made MAT-120mm mortars in the city center of Misrata – weapons that are altogether prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. These and thousands more weapons sales, the report documents, have enabled tyrants in the Middle East to slaughter their own people.
To the credit of the West, in most cases the U.S. and European states froze contracts or revoked licenses to states that began using their weapons en masse against their own people.
Still, exceptions can be made for friends. A September 14 Department of Defense press release noted a possible Foreign Military Sale to the government of Bahrain, which had requested 53 million dollars of military equipment, including 44 Armored High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicles, a variety of wire guided missiles, Night Sight Sets, spare parts, and other support and test equipment. Perhaps some of the tanks and armored vehicles used in the February 17 raid on peaceful Bahraini protesters — in which five people were killed and 250 injured — were damaged and in need of urgent U.S. government repair before the next round of protests broke out?
The State Department, in response to pressure from Congress and other NGOs, recently announced a “delay” in the shipment of new arms to Bahrain pending the results of an international commission investigating “alleged” abuses by the Kingdom’s security forces. Is Foggy Bottom incapable of conducting its own investigation? Is there not enough independent evidence of flagrant human rights violations to “cancel” the shipment altogether?
The main recommendation of the report, however, is not to prohibit arms sales to erstwhile violators – something about which there seems to be general consensus (with the possible exception of the Defense Department) – but rather to establish “objective and non-discriminatory” criteria “designed to prevent arms transfers where there is a substantial risk of serious violations occurring” in the future.
How it is possible to establish “objective” criteria to predict which countries will commit “serious” violations in the future? If these criteria were so easy to develop, why didn’t Amnesty publish this report a year or two ago? Amnesty could only conceive of producing such a priori criteria after violations have taken place.
The inevitable risk – one acknowledged in the report – is that politicians will exploit this kind of law to punish some states and reward others, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with the potential for human rights violations (if such a potentiality is even possible to determine). Short of banning the sale of any kind of arms to anyone for any reason, I think the Amnesty recommendations need a great deal more deliberation – including public debates over the objective criteria – before U.S. lawmakers consider accepting them.
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