On 30 January 2017, Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he expects President Trump’s administration to approve the stalled sale of F-16 fighter jets to the Government of Bahrain. This sale was blocked by the Obama administration due to concerns over Bahrain’s record on human rights.
The sale being referred to in Corker’s prediction is a late-2016 deal with Bahrain that would provide the country with nineteen F-16 fighter jets at a cost of nearly $3 billion. The deal came at the same time that the U.S. was moving forward with military sales to Qatar and Kuwait, but the Obama administration in September 2016 notified Congress that it was making the F-16 sale to Bahrain conditional upon the Bahraini government’s demonstration of progress on its human rights record. Last week, Senator Corker said that he does not think such concerns “are the kinds of things that belong in an arms sales agreement,” and expressed his hope that the Bahrain deal will “roll out without the restrictions” now that the Trump administration is in charge.
This is not the first time the issue of Bahrain’s human rights record and U.S.-Bahrain arms transfers has been a subject of concern within the U.S. government. In October 2011, the Obama administration suspended a $53 million arms deal with Bahrain in the aftermath of the Bahraini government’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protests that began in the country in February of that year. Citing “concern about the Government of Bahrain’s action against protesters,” the Obama administration decided to suspend the sale pending a review of the then-soon-to-be-released Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) Report, which was the culmination of an independent investigation into the alleged human rights abuses that took place during and after Bahrain’s 2011 protests. The hold on this sale was lifted in June 2015, despite widespread documentation of ongoing human rights abuses in the country.
In August 2015, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a resolution that would reinstate the ban on the sale of U.S. arms to Bahrain that could be used to “suppress peaceful dissent.” The resolution provided for the ban to remain in place until the U.S. Secretary of State determined that the Bahraini government had implemented all 26 recommendations made by the BICI in 2011. Following the introduction of the Senate resolution, a House companion resolution soon followed. The resolutions, however, did not pass. Nearly a year later, in June 2016, the U.S. Department of State released its report on the Bahraini government’s implementation of the BICI Report’s 26 recommendations. The State Department’s report was markedly lacking in its level of scrutiny and depth of research, and it failed to thoroughly examine the Bahraini government’s continued failure to reform. The State Department’s report often suggested that the Bahraini government had instituted reforms that remained utterly unfilled; such findings in many cases directly contradicted those of international human rights mechanisms and organizations, many of which continue to conclude that the Bahraini government’s steps toward reform have been superficial. This includes ADHRB’s own findings, released in the November 2015 report Shattering the Façade, which demonstrated that, at the time, only 2 of the BICI’s 26 recommendations had been fully implemented.
The reality on the ground today is even less promising. In early January 2017, the Bahraini government restored law enforcement abilities to its National Security Agency (NSA), which saw these powers stripped from it in one of the few measures recommended by the BICI report that were actually implemented. The NSA oversaw the torture of protesters in 2011, and the restoration of its arrest powers comes in the context of an escalated human rights crisis that has carried over into 2017. The latest manifestation of this crisis came on 15 January 2017, when the Government of Bahrain executed three individuals whose death sentences were imposed in part on the basis of convictions that were extracted under conditions of torture. Further, on 26 January, Bahraini security forces fired live ammunition at unarmed protesters in Diraz, where a permanent sit-in has been ongoing since the Bahraini government’s June 2016 revocation of the citizenship of the prominent spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassim. Among those injured in Diraz was the 18-year-old Mustafa Ahmed Hamdan, who was shot in the head.
Given these concerns, the Trump administration should not abandon the human rights-based conditions that have been set on the sale of F-16s to Bahrain. The decision to cast aside human rights concerns that have been officially attached to an arms transfer deal, without those concerns having been addressed, would be an extremely concerning development in U.S. arms trade policy and practice. Coming in the context of arms sales to Saudi Arabia that have led to accusations of U.S. complicity in the commission of war crimes, it could be even more damaging. Allowing the F-16 deal with Bahrain to continue sans restrictions could set a precedent for arms sales in the Gulf region and around the world that the United States will not demand respect for human rights as a prerequisite for governments that wish to purchase American military weapons and equipment.
The human rights records of arms importing countries should always be of concern when the U.S. weighs a potential arms sale. Indeed, such transfers should be blocked if there is reason to believe that American-made weapons might be used to commit war crimes or other violations of human rights. Stipulations of this sort have been laid out as official U.S. policy in the past, and there is an international treaty with 130 signatories that seeks to do the same. Contrary to Corker’s claim, then, that these kinds of concerns do not belong in arms sales agreements, and that their inclusion would “set a very bad precedent,” these kinds of caveats would in fact set exactly the right precedent—that the United States is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world.
Phil Bracey is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.