Obama administration approves arms shipment to Bahrain

January 28, 2012

Despite continued human rights violations against civilians, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports that the Bahraini government is about to get even more military armaments from the United States. According to the article, which quotes key members of Congress, the Obama Administration has approved a new sale of US arms and/or military equipment to Bahraini security forces.

In a question and answer session with reporters on Friday, US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated that the US Government planned to “release some previously notified equipment needed for Bahrain’s external defense and support of Fifth Fleet operations.”

Ms. Nuland went on to add, “This includes spare parts and maintenance of equipment. None of these items can be used against protestors.” Pay close attention to the word “includes.” What else is in the sale?

Of course, the challenge with this is that there is no way to independently verify what the US Department of Defense and State Department are allowing Bahraini security forces to buy. Foreign Policy’s Rogin reports that because the sale – or multiple sales – all fall below the $1 million mark, the US Government doesn’t have to make the details public.

Given the track record of the Bahraini government in violently responding to protestors’ demands, any US transfer of weapons, ammunition, or military equipment must be looked at closely. In Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain, the US government has a bad history of providing weapons to those who have ultimately been willing to point them at their own people. The Bahraini government continues to demonstrate that willingness, even after significant international criticism.

On January 26th, Amnesty International reported on over a dozen deaths that followed the excessive use of tear gas and other crowd control agents by Bahraini security forces. But the violence didn’t start there. In the protests against the Khalifa monarchy during early 2011, at least 47 people died. More have alleged torture following arrest, and thousands have been fired from their jobs. It is unclear how many were reinstated in the aftermath.

Later, the Bahraini monarchy created a commission of inquiry that recommended significant human rights reforms. However, human rights abuses continue to this day. Earlier this month, the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights was beaten by Bahraini security forces and hospitalized.

Given this record, Amnesty International finds these additional US arms sales to the Bahraini government troubling. Because the details are secret, it is difficult to independently determine whether the US government is providing the kinds of weapons, ammunition, and/or equipment that Bahraini security forces could use in the commission of further human rights violations.

It is worth noting that just four months ago, the Obama Administration proposed a $53 million arms sale (PDF) to Bahrain that included armored Humvees, tow missiles, and night vision goggles. In October of 2011, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland described that proposed sale as “designed to support the Bahraini military in its external defense function.”
Note the use of that same phrase – “external defense.”

For a Bahraini government with a track record of violating human rights, the difference between “external defense” and internal crackdowns may be less than obvious. Bahraini security forces already used military vehicles in the commission of human rights violations when they surrounded a hospital with tanks. Inside the hospital, doctors were treating wounded protestors. The doctors were arrested.

Fortunately, Members of Congress moved to oppose the $53 million arms sale, and the Obama Administration put the sale on pause. But now, an openly secret sale is underway. Thanks to leaks, we all know it is happening. We just don’t know the details.

In his State of the Union address earlier this week, President Obama spoke of the “wave of change” in the Middle East and what US foreign policy would be: “We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings –- men and women; Christians, Muslims and Jews.”

From Colombia to Egypt, US weapons sales have frequently put the US government on the wrong side of this stated value. It is time to lift the veil of secrecy. The new US arms sales to Bahrain must be subject to public scrutiny.

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