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.
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. "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.