By Xiaodon Liang
As the Libyan summer gives way to an autumn of uncertainty in the Middle East, memories of the policy inconsistencies brought to light by the Arab Spring have apparently faded entirely from the minds of U.S. arms exports policy makers. The fear of Iranian aggression has again trumped evidence of severe human rights violations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, at least in the calculus that informed the administration’s decision to sell 44 Armored High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs, or Humvees) to the Bahraini government. The decision, announced Sept. 14, was followed five days later by a second notification to Congress, published by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) of the Department of Defense, announcing an even larger sale of 432 Humvee variants to the government of Saudi Arabia.
The notifications to Congress indicate that the administration is preparing to sell military goods to a foreign government through the Defense Department’s Foreign Military Sales program (exact requirements are explained in this Arms Control Association factsheet). Not all potential sales published by the DSCA are eventually finalized. Congress has the authority to block a proposed sale with a joint resolution of disapproval, although it has never done so once a notification has been officially publicized.
The Humvee family of armored vehicles is one of the U.S. military’s workhorses for transporting soldiers around the battlefield, but because of their basic characteristics could easily be used in repressive policing operations. Saudi Arabia showed in March that it has no qualms against using military vehicles to help its authoritarian neighbors, including the Bahraini royal family, put down internal uprisings. The State Department has year-after-year in its Reports on Human Rights Practices expressed concerns about the two countries’ heavy-handed approaches to regulating dissent.
The arms transfers announced by the DSCA will certainly have benefits for the military capabilities of the two Gulf States. The Bahraini Humvees would be sold with anti-armor and anti-bunker missiles, while the Saudi deal also includes artillery and targeting systems. But while legitimate security concerns may at times require the sale of arms to regimes with unsavory human rights records, the United States must do its best to ensure those arms are not put to the wrong uses.
If it is possible to verifiably confirm that these armored vehicles will only be used in military operations, then the Obama administration might theoretically justify the transfer on the grounds of bolstering regional security.
But the experiences of the Arab Spring have shown how hollow promises of proper end-use made by authoritarian regimes can ring. Saudi Arabia has shown its willingness to use military hardware under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council to crush the protestors of Bahrain’s Pearl Square.
In March, a British Ministry of Defence official told the Guardian that providing training for the use of imported arms to Saudi security personnel would “save lives and raise awareness of human rights”. Notwithstanding the best intentions of British instructors, it is difficult to take such claims at face value.
The Logic of a Global Arms Trade Treaty
If the United States declines to sell military goods to countries with poor human rights records, there is a legitimate concern that other, less discerning exporters might step in. For that reason, a comprehensive approach to the problem of irresponsible arms sales must involve a multilateral instrument that raises standards of conduct for all exporters. The Arms Trade Treaty that will be negotiated at a July conference next year is the international community’s best chance of adopting such an instrument.
As the Arms Control Association and others have argued, the United States should support the inclusion of strong language in the treaty that commits all states not to transfer military goods to recipients that fail to respect human rights. Legal obligations created by a binding Arms Trade Treaty would lay the groundwork for enforcement of a more responsible international arms market.
Within the United States, Congress could do significantly more to prevent the transfer of arms “Made in the USA” to buyers that regularly violate basic rights. If the Arab Spring has taught arms exporters anything, it is that once weapons and other military items have been shipped abroad there is little that can be done to control how they are used.
Prevention of human rights abuses can be mitigated at the earliest stages if arms sales are better scrutinized and held to a higher standard. If that lesson fails to resonate in Washington, the United States will repeatedly find itself in the awkward position of claiming to “always serve as a voice for those who have been silenced” as President Obama did today at the United Nations, while foreign security personnel scramble out of American-made armored vehicles on their way to silencing those very dissident voices.