As U.S. politicians voiced their support for the brave men and women standing up for freedom in the Arab world, those same protesters were being suppressed with weapons from the United States.
The problem goes far deeper than the occasionally-noted fact that tear gas canisters used in Egypt were American-made: The United States regularly supplies large quantities of weapons to repressive regimes. The practice of ignoring gross human rights violations and bolstering these governments not only implicates Americans in overseas oppression; it also further delegitimizes any U.S. claims of spreading democracy and peace, tarnishing our global reputation and reducing our morality to hypocrisy.
A new report by Amnesty International examined arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen since 2005. The researchers found that the United States, in addition to Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom, were the main weapons suppliers to these five regimes.
Specifically, the report found that the United States has, since 2005, been supplying arms to Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt. Those infamous tear gas canisters were part of the $1.3 billion in riot control gear the United States sends to Egypt each year.
Given the democratic and human rights rhetoric often spouted by EU and U.S. politicians, one might expect them to try to prevent weapons from reaching countries that regularly attack or kill dissenting civilians. The report shows that, behind politicians’ words, there are much more disturbing actions when it comes to regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.
“These findings highlight the stark failure of existing arms export controls, with all their loopholes, and underline the need for an effective global Arms Trade Treaty that takes full account of the need to uphold human rights,” said Helen Hughes, Amnesty International’s principal arms trade researcher on the report.
“Governments that now say they stand in solidarity with people across the Middle East and North Africa are the very same as those who until recently supplied the weapons, bullets, and military and police equipment that were used to kill, injure, and arbitrarily detain thousands of peaceful protesters in states such as Tunisia and Egypt and are even now being deployed by security forces in Syria and Yemen.”
Current regulations and arms embargoes have done little to curb the transfer of weapons to oppressive regimes. When Arms Trade Treaty talks resume at the United Nations in February, countries will have an opportunity to approve stricter standards that would require a rigorous case-by-case evaluation of all arms transfers to ensure that their weapons are not being used to commit human rights abuses.
Meanwhile, the United States is considering whether to go ahead with a $53 million arms deal with Bahrain. The Gulf kingdom’s Shia Muslim-led majority have been protesting since February for greater rights from the ruling Sunni monarchy. At least 35 people have died in the subsequent crackdown. The State Department and Congress have both insisted that they would wait for the results of a special human rights inquiry before approving the sale of Humvees, missiles, and other weapons to Bahrain.
“As we move forward, we’re going to keep in touch with Congress,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner said in a press briefing Tuesday. “We’re going to continue to look at all the elements on the ground, including [the] human rights situation, and, as I said, consult with Congress as we move closer.”
Despite such assurances, the Bahrain deal could become yet another example of the United States unnecessarily involving itself in overseas human rights abuses.
So if politicians truly want to reduce unnecessary government spending, here’s an obvious solution: Stop giving weapons to oppressive regimes, which will in turn lessen the need for us to intervene militarily once those regimes use our weapons against their citizens. But then again, we could just keep talking about how brave the Arab protesters are and hope that no one can read the “Made in U.S.A.” labels.