Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
For the United States, the world’s leading arms merchant, a controversial deal with the tiny island state of Bahrain is negligible, less than half a percent of America’s total sales. But it helps explain efforts to regulate the global arms trade more tightly.
The proposed sale in question is worth $53 million, involves 44 armoured Humvees, a variety of missiles, and night vision equipment. The Pentagon announced it in mid-September, just three months after the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahue, in a speech in Geneva, included Bahrain on a list of governments that “repress dissent with impunity.” Along with Syria, Yemen and Libya, the royal rulers of Bahrain responded to the Arab Spring democracy movement by killing and jailing opponents.
In mid-September, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency told Congress that the deal would “contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.” The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the U.S. appeared to “reward repression with new weapons.”
That would make it hard for people to take seriously American statements about human rights and support for democracy, said Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch. The deal should be delayed until Bahrain ends abuses against critics, she said on September 22.
Since then, the Bahraini rulers took more action that provided fodder to its critics. On September 29, a court sentenced a protester to death for allegedly killing a policeman and sentenced doctors who had treated wounded protesters to prison terms from five to 15v years.