Chief of US troops in Middle East declares human rights should not be condition for American arm sales

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 4:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 7:26am

The commander of US forces in the Middle East said foreign arms sales to allies shouldn’t be burdened with preconditions tied to human rights, citing the case of Bahrain.

Army General Joseph Votel, who heads US Central Command, told a congressional committee Wednesday that the US’s military-to-military relationship with the Gulf ally has been hurt by delays in a proposed sale of as many as 19 new F-16 fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin and upgrades for older ones in a deal totaling almost US$4 billion.

“While we have historically enjoyed a strong mil-to-mil relationship with our Bahraini counterparts, the slow progress on key FMS cases, specifically additional F-16 aircraft and upgrades to Bahrain’s existing F-16 fleet, due to concerns of potential human rights abuses in the country, continues to strain our relationship,” Votel said in prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, referring to the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales programme.

The Obama administration told Congress in September it wouldn’t complete approval of the sale until Bahrain demonstrated progress on human rights issues after its Sunni-dominated government suppressed non-violent opposition and dissolved the main opposition group of the country’s Shiite majority.

The sale remains under active consideration in the Trump administration, which has emphasised “hard power” over “soft power” goals such as encouraging democracy abroad.

Votel didn’t dismiss human rights concerns altogether. “We continue to urge the Government of Bahrain to reverse steps it has taken over the past year to reduce the space for peaceful political expression in its Shia population and have encouraged the Bahrainis to implement needed political reforms while assuring them of our strong commitment,” he said.

Bahrain is an important US partner, hosting the US Navy Fifth Fleet headquarters and the “Combined Maritime Forces” in Manama. Bahrain also has actively supported US-led military operations against Islamic State terrorists in Syria since September 2014, primarily by allowing the US continued use and access to its facilities.

Using military sales “to achieve changes in behaviour has questionable effectiveness and can have unintended consequences,” Votel said. “We need to carefully balance these concerns against our desired outcomes for US security assistance programmes” and “we should avoid using the programmes as a lever of influence or denial to our own detriment.”