Arms Sales and Military Aid

The danger of shortsighted arms sales

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Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is planning to introduce a bill that would permit arms sales to rebels in Syria.

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Engel, who is a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said, “I will be introducing legislation to allow the president to arm the rebels. I think it’s time to do that. I think the Free Syrian Army needs help. We know who they are. And I think it’s time that we make that move.”

It’s understandable to want to take some kind of concrete action to aid the FSA after months of harsh fighting. But throwing more weapons into a heated conflict is the kind of shortsighted policy that has gotten the US in trouble before.

The complexity of this kind of situation was exemplified by reports of human rights violations by rebels in Libya:

“The rebel conduct was disturbing,” said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“We documented fairly widespread looting of homes and shops, the burning of some homes of suspected Gaddafi supporters and – most disturbingly – the vandalisation of three medical clinics [and] local small hospitals, including the theft of some of the medical equipment.”

He said the Libyan government had committed more serious crimes, but that did not excuse the behaviour of the rebels.

“Our aim is to hold all combatants, all militaries – whether they’re organised and states and governments or rebels groups – to the same standards, and it’s very much also a warning shot across the bow, because of these other areas they are approaching. We’re deeply worried about how they might behave and treat civilians in those areas.”

Our country has a long, shameful history of arms transfers and military aid to human rights abusers, from Pinochet to Mubarak. The Obama administration has continued arms transfers to Bahrain despite brutal crackdowns on protesters.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) is working on a solution. He has reintroduced the Arms Sale Responsibility Act, which would prohibit arms transfers if there is significant risk that the weapons would be used to commit human rights abuse. Twenty-six organizations signed a letter supporting the bill last year, and we’ll be working to build support for it again in 2013.