U.S. points finger, and arms exports, at human rights abusers

The State Department decries repression in the countries where it promotes the purchase of U.S. weaponry

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 Updated:

An Egyptian protester displays a non-exploded U.S.-made tear gas bomb after clashes between protesters and anti-riot policemen near the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, in September 2011.

Amr Nabil/AP

Every May and June, different branches of the State Department paint contrasting portraits of how Washington views dozens of strategically significant countries around the world, in seemingly rivalrous reports by its Human Rights and Political-Military Affairs bureaus.

The former routinely criticizes other nations for a lack of fealty to democratic principles, citing abuses of the right to expression, assembly, speech and political choice. The latter tallies the government’s latest successes in the export of American weaponry, often to the same countries criticized by the former.

This year was no different. The State Department’s Military Assistance Report on June 8 stated that it approved $44.28 billion in arms shipments to 173 nations in the last fiscal year, including some that struggled with human rights problems. These nations include the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Israel, Djibouti, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

Three nations with records of suppressing democratic dissent in the last year — Algeria, Egypt, and Peru — are listed in the report as recently receiving U.S. firearms, armored vehicles, and items from a category that includes chemical and riot control agents like tear gas. The State Department confirmed that U.S. tear gas was delivered to Egypt up to the end of November, but has declined to confirm it was also sent to Algeria and Peru.

The export of American arms to countries around the world — what the State Department calls a tangible expression of American “partnership” — is in fact booming. The commercial arms sales reviewed by the State Department reached $44.28 billion in fiscal year 2011, a $10 billion sales increase since 2010. Next year should see another increase of 70 percent, the department says.

Those sales — plus the government-to-government arms exports overseen by the Pentagon — make the United States the world’s top provider of major conventional weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia, France, and China followed behind. Much of the recent U.S. increase came from vastly expanded sales to Saudi Arabia, Brazil and India.

“Obviously, we’re going to continue to press and advocate for U.S. arms sales,” said Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro in a June 14 news conference addressing arms exports. “We are hopeful that arms sales to India will increase. We’ve made tremendous progress in this relationship over the last decade.”

Shapiro explained that by “progress” he meant that U.S. arms sales to India went from “nearly zero” to around $8 billion in that period.

Here’s what the May 24 report issued by State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said about India: “The most significant human rights problems were police and security force abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape; widespread corruption at all levels of government; and separatist, insurgent, and societal violence. Other human rights problems included disappearances, poor prison conditions that were frequently life threatening, arbitrary arrest and detention, and lengthy pretrial detention.”

India is not alone in getting U.S. arms sales pitches at the same time Washington points at rights abuses. Commercial arms sales totalling $2.4 billion were approved to the United Arab Emirates, which the State Department said had abridged key political freedoms; sales totalling $1.7 billion were approved to Qatar, which lacks independent media and restricts freedom of assembly; and sales totalling $1.39 billion were approved to Djibouti, whch State said had harassed, abused and detained government critics. (A top 10 country list appears at the end of this article.)

“When we deem that cooperating with an ally or partner in the security sector will advance our national security, we advocate tirelessly on behalf of U.S. [arms manufacturing] companies,” Shapiro said.

No law requires that U.S. arms be exported only to countries that the State Department — in its annual human rights assessments — determines are treating their citizens well. Instead, a more narrow restriction known as the so-called “Leahy Law,” named for author Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) and passed in 1997, prohibits U.S. assistance to specific military and police units deemed responsible for human rights abuses.

Moreover, as Leahy spokesman David Carle pointed out in an interview, the law only covers direct government-to-government transfers overseen by the Defense Department, a stream of exports separate from the commercial sales reviewed and approved by the State Department. So, although the Defense Department’s $34.8 billion in direct government-to-government sales are covered by the Leahy Law, the $44.28 billion in sales authorized by State are not.

Adotei Akwei, the managing director of Amnesty International’s government relations efforts, said that “In all of these countries, there’s a need for a much more rigorous process for looking at where these weapons are going and how they’re being used. Even though the State Department identifies problems, we still see these sales taking place over and over again. There’s a much-exemplified disconnect between the identifying of abuse and the sales.”

Shapiro, at the press conference, said his Bureau of Political-Military Affairs ensures any military assistance to foreign militaries and companies “is fully in line with U.S. foreign policy.” Officials vet governments as well as the companies on both sides of the sale, he said. “We only allow a sale after we carefully examine issues like human rights, regional security, and nonproliferation concerns.”

The State Department emphasizes that many items shipped to foreign militaries are used only for external defense, not for internal suppression. In the case of the United Arab Emirates, for example, a $29.4 billion sale authorized in January for fiscal year 2012 consisted mostly of the purchase of 84 F-15 fighter aircraft. But State also authorized billions of dollars in sales of small arms, ammunition and toxicological agents to various countries, including $3,091,166 of firearms to Peru and $1,153,617 to Honduras.

Although State’s public export declaration lists such broad categories of exported weaponry, determining exactly what the shipments contained is still a challenge. Spokesman David McKeeby declined to discuss whether Peru and Algeria got riot control agents, for example, despite the department's confirmation that Egypt did. Asked why, he said “Egypt was a very unique case. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you any more details about these countries, or these licenses.”

McKeeby added that “what I can tell you in Bahrain and Algeria’s case, for example, is that a lot of these licenses predate the Arab Spring period, and that’s something that’s being considered for licenses for the next fiscal year. But the information you want falls under ITAR. That’s how these reports are written, and that’s what we leave it at.” ITAR stands for State’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which say that details of the arms exports “may generally not be disclosed to the public.”

Representatives of several companies linked in public accounts to shipments of tear gas canisters to Middle Eastern nations declined to comment. Jose Corbera, a spokesman for the Peruvian embassy’s Commercial Office did not return a request for comment, and officials at Algeria’s embassy also declined to provide data on imports of U.S. munitions.

State spokeswoman Beth Gosselin did note that some of the weapons exports listed in the State Department’s report were meant for use by U.S. forces abroad, not by foreign militaries. In Bahrain, for example, $266.7 million of the $280.3 million worth of military arms and equipment were items for the Navy’s “Fifth Fleet” station on the island nation, she said. Gosselin declined to provide similar data for other countries.

Matt Schroeder, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the U.S. vetting process for militaries and governments receiving arms is better than that of many nations, but that information on which weapons go to U.S. forces and which weapons go to other users is rarely accessible. “It’s difficult to take the dollar value of arms shipped to a country and extrapolate which section of these items may be vulnerable to misuse,” Schroeder said. “It’s tough to make that call.”

A provision written by Leahy and passed by Congress in 2011 requires legislative approval for the sale of crowd-control material to Middle Eastern governments facing democratic unrest. That provision forced an initial halt to weapons transfers to Bahrain, which has seen protests dating back to last year’s Arab Spring. But in May, the U.S. ended the months-long freeze for some items, renewing the export of arms meant to be used for external defense, such as harbor security boats and engines for jet planes.

The issue of arms exports to countries engaged in repression of their own populaces has been debated recently by top U.S. and Russian officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 12 accused Russia of shipping attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, charging that those weapons were being turned against Syria’s own people. In a retort, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, "We are not supplying to Syria or anywhere else things that are used in fighting with peaceful demonstrators, in contrast to the United States, which is regularly sending such special means to countries in the region.”

Lavrov did not mention any nation by name, but Shapiro took the comment as a critique of U.S. exports to Bahrain and called the Russian criticism ”totally specious …We have made clear that we’re not selling equipment to Bahrain now that can be used for internal security purposes until there is improvement on human rights, and … as Secretary Clinton pointed out, the sales to Syria are directly implicated in attacking innocent people, innocent civilians. So we believe that that comparison does not hold water.”

Next month, the United Nations is scheduled to discuss a global treaty that would require annual reports from all nations detailing the value and type of weapons they exported. Although President George W. Bush’s administration opposed the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty in favor of handling weapons tracking on a national level, Clinton reversed that position in a statement in October 2009, saying, “The United States is prepared to work hard for a strong international standard.”

U.S. officials have said the treaty, expected to be approved by the end of July, would effectively force other nations to make declarations comparable to what the State Department already does in its annual military assistance report. Akwei expressed hope that the result will be a more concrete system for tracking international arms shipments and ensuring they’re not used in cases of human rights abuse.

“The treaty finally focuses an international lens on this huge trade where the oversight is scarce and haphazard,” Akwei said. “It will be largely dependent on cooperation of countries like China and Russia, but it will give NGOs in those countries, and worldwide, the ability to see records and ask questions about arms trade.”

What follows is a list of the top 10 national recipients in fiscal 2011 of commercially sold U.S. weapons that were cited by the State Department for human rights shortcomings in calendar 2011:

United Arab Emirates

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$2,465,144,471 (4th highest value out of 173 nations)
Types of weapons:Missiles / rockets / torpedoes, firearms, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents)
Types of equipment:Aircraft and equipment, ammunition

Human rights problems

“Three core human rights issues continue to be of concern: citizens’ inability to change their government; limitations on citizens’ civil liberties (including the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association); and lack of judicial independence … political parties are not permitted. The government continued to interfere with privacy and to restrict civil liberties, including usage of the Internet.”
“Political organizations, political parties, and trade unions are illegal.”

The government does not provide equal rights for women and foreign workers. UAE courts reserve the option of imposing flogging as punishment for adultery, prostitution, consensual premarital sex, pregnancy outside marriage, defamation of character, and drug or alcohol abuse.

Qatar

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$1,792,415,581 (8th)

Types of weapons:

Explosives, missiles / rockets / torpedoes
Types of equipment:Military electronics, aircraft and equipment, ammunition

Human rights problems

“The constitution provides for, but strictly regulates, freedom of assembly. Organizers must meet a number of restrictions and conditions to acquire a permit for a public meeting. For example, the Director General of Public Security at the Ministry of Interior must give permission for a meeting, a decision which is subject to appeal to the minister of interior, who has the final decision.”

“The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press in accordance with the law, but the government limited these rights in practice … The law provides for restrictive procedures on the establishment of newspapers, closure, and confiscation of assets of a publication. It also criminalizes libel and slander, including injury to dignity. All print media were owned by members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials. There were no independent broadcast media, and state-owned television and radio reflected government views … In at least one case, the authorities contacted a reporter with a warning after the reporter published an article critical of the government.” There is no law criminalizing domestic violence or spousal rape.

Israel

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$1,462,319,370 (10th)
Types of weapons:Firearms, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents), missiles / rockets / torpedoes
Types of equipment:Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment, ammunition   

Human rights problems

“The most significant human rights issues during the year were terrorist attacks against civilians; institutional and societal discrimination against Arab citizens—in particular issues of access to housing and employment opportunities; and societal discrimination and domestic violence against women.”

“NGOs continued to criticize … detention practices they termed abusive, including isolation, sleep deprivation, and psychological abuse, such as threats to interrogate family members or demolish family homes.”

 

Djibouti

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$1,396,999,702 (12th)
Types of weapons:Heavy guns / armament, missiles / rockets / torpedoes
Types of equipment:Military electronics, cameras / auxiliary equipment, ammunition

Human rights problems

“The most serious human rights problem in the country was the government’s abridgement of the right of citizens to change or significantly influence their government; it did so by harassing, abusing, and detaining government critics and by its unwillingness to permit the population access to independent sources of information within the country.”

“Numerous persons were detained for political reasons during the months leading up to the election and released afterwards. For example, the government charged eight men—including human rights activist Jean Paul Noel Abdi—with conspiring against the state. The prisoners were permitted legal representation and were allowed to meet with their attorneys before trial. Noel Abdi was released two weeks later. The remaining prisoners were detained for two months and released shortly after the election.”

“Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The Interior Ministry requires permits for peaceful assemblies and denied such permits to opposition groups during the election campaign.”

Honduras

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$1,390,675,958 (13th)
Types of weapons:Firearms
Types of equipment:Aircraft and equipment, fire-control systems, guided missile tracking equipment

Human rights problems

“Among the most serious human rights problems were corruption within the national police force, institutional weakness of the judiciary, and discrimination and violence against vulnerable populations. Police and government agents committed unlawful killings. Vigilantes and former members of the security forces carried out arbitrary and summary killings … Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were instances in which the police and military employed them, including police beatings and other abuse of detainees.”

“On December 7, unknown gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed former senior government adviser for security Alfredo Landaverde. In the weeks preceding his death, Landaverde had publicly called for cleaning up the National Police and alleged that its leadership was linked to organized crime. An investigation into his death continued at year’s end.”

“During the year confrontations over a long-standing land dispute between owners of African palm plantations and rural field workers in the Aguan Valley, Colon Department, resulted in the deaths of or injuries to approximately 55 persons, including field hands, private security guards, security force members, one judge, and bystanders. At year’s end responsibility for all but two of these deaths had not been established. Human rights groups alleged that police, soldiers, and private security guards used disproportionate force against the protesting workers.”

Saudi Arabia

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$877,678,790 (16th)
Types of weapons:

Firearms, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents), heavy guns / armament, explosives, missiles / rockets / torpedoes

Types of equipment:

Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment, guided missile systems

Human rights problems

“The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women and children, as well as for workers.”

“ … on July 27, security officials reportedly took a prominent human rights activist, Mekhlef bin Daham al-Shammary, from his prison cell at the Damman General Prison to a room where there were no surveillance cameras and severely beat him. A guard then allegedly poured an antiseptic cleaning liquid down al-Shammary’s throat, resulting in his being taken to a hospital.”

“There were reports that at least two of a group of 16 men found guilty of security-related offenses were tortured in the period between their arrest in 2007 and their conviction on November 22. Among them, according to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Amnesty International (AI), was Suliman al-Reshoudi, a 73-year-old former judge, who was subjected in prison to “severe physical and psychological tortures,” including more than three years of solitary confinement. One of the detainees was allegedly beaten on at least seven occasions with metal sticks and received electric shocks. Saud al-Hashimi was reportedly abused by being placed for five hours in a severely cold cell and forced to confess, among other acts, to contacting Al-Jazeera television station and to collecting money without the permission of the ruler.”

Kuwait

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$693,691,173 (19th)
Types of weapons:Firearms, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents), heavy guns / armament, missiles / rockets / torpedoes
Types of equipment:Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment

Human rights problems

“… there were reports that some police and members of the security forces abused detainees during the year. Police and security forces were more likely to inflict such abuse on noncitizens, particularly non-Gulf Arabs and Asians. Security forces reportedly detained, harassed, and sexually abused transgender persons.”

“The government restricted freedom of speech, particularly in instances purportedly related to national security. The law also specifically prohibits material insulting Islam, the emir, the constitution, or the neutrality of the courts or Public Prosecutor’s Office. The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen may file criminal charges against a person the citizen believes has defamed Islam, the ruling family, or public morals.”

“In December 2010 authorities shut the local offices of the Al Jazeera television network and withdrew its accreditation after it broadcast footage of police using force to break up an unauthorized gathering of oppositionists and subsequently gave airtime to opposition parliamentarians who strongly criticized the government for the police actions.”

Algeria

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$406,056,112 (20th)
Types of weapons:

Firearms, heavy guns / armament, explosives, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents)

Types of equipment:Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment

Human rights problems

“There were reports of dozens of individuals detained for political reasons, including peaceful assembly in Algiers. In virtually all of the instances, police detained activists participating in protests or marches and held them either in the backs of riot trucks on site or transported them to nearby police precincts. Police released the activists without charges once the protests had subsided … Other human rights concerns were reports of unlawful killings, overuse of pretrial detention, poor prison conditions, abuse of prisoners, and lack of judicial independence.”

“Every Saturday from February 12 to late April, government security forces prevented protesters with the political opposition group National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD) from staging a march in Algiers. On several occasions, CNCD organizers submitted paperwork to local officials requesting permission to march, but the requests were denied on security grounds. In some cases police arrested protesters and injured some of them as a result of participation in unsanctioned protests.”

“Between 3,000 and 5,000 university students on April 12 staged the first successful public march in Algiers since 2001, despite police efforts to prevent it. Students were largely nonviolent, but there were approximately 100 injuries.”

“Radio and television were government-owned and frequently broadcasted coverage favorable to the government. Sources maintained that broadcast media did not grant sufficient access to opposition parties and critical NGOs. During nonelection periods opposition parties and spokesmen regularly were denied access to public radio or television.”

Peru

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$404,325,333 (21st)
Types of weapons:Firearms, heavy guns / armament, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents)
Types of equipment:Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment

Human rights problems

“The following human rights problems …were reported: killings by security forces of protesters during demonstrations, harsh prison conditions, abuse of detainees and inmates by prison security forces, lengthy pretrial detention and inordinate trial delays, intimidation of the media, incomplete registration of internally displaced persons, and discrimination against women.”

“Allegations of abuse most often arose immediately following an arrest, when families were prohibited from visiting suspects and when attorneys had limited access to detainees. In some cases police and security forces threatened or harassed victims, relatives, and witnesses to prevent them from filing charges of human rights violations.”

Bahrain

Commercial arms authorized:

Total:$280,373,829 (28th)
Types of weapons:Firearms, heavy guns / armament
Types of equipment:

Ammunition, aircraft and equipment, military electronics

Human rights problems

“On several occasions government forces used unnecessary and disproportionate force to disperse protesters … the government used excessive force on February 17 when it used tear gas, shotguns, batons, sound bombs, and rubber bullets to disperse protesters from the GCC/Pearl Roundabout. Approximately 1,000 MOI [Ministry of Interior] personnel entered the GCC/Pearl Roundabout at 3 a.m. to disperse camping protesters. Personnel from the BNSA, CID, and BDF Intelligence were also on site. Security forces fired numerous rounds of tear gas to disperse protesters and engaged protesters directly. The MOI indicated that a number of protesters assaulted police officers with rocks, sticks, metal rods, swords, knives, and other sharp objects. As a result, more than 40 officers sustained injuries, including severe cuts to limbs. The clearing operation and subsequent clashes between security personnel and protesters led to the deaths of four individuals from shotgun wounds and injuries to 50 protesters. Soon after the police crackdown, BDF tanks occupied the GCC/Pearl Roundabout to stop demonstrators from occupying the area. On February 19, security forces withdrew from the GCC/Pearl Roundabout, allowing demonstrators to retake control of the area.”

“[In prisons] Many reports followed a similar pattern of abuse: arbitrary arrest, beating without interrogation, beating with interrogation, harassment and intimidation without further physical abuse, and then release of the detainee after any visible wounds or signs of mistreatment had healed.”