The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down a lot of things, but U.S. arms sales are not one of them. Since March, the Trump administration has made over $9 billion in major offers in 15 separate deals. But it’s not just about the money, it’s about whom we’re arming.
A case in point is the Philippines, where the Duterte regime is one of the world’s most aggressive human rights abusers. Over 27,000 people have been killed in the government’s “war on drugs,” many of them by the police and military or government-affiliated death squads. People are being gunned down in the streets without benefit of a trial or formal charges. And the victims have included lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and trade unionists whose only crime has been opposing the regime’s repressive practices.
Despite this record, the Philippine military is slated to receive a package of attack helicopters, bombs and missiles worth up to $1.5 billion. This comes on the heels of offers of firearms last year that included pistols and semi-automatic rifles for the Philippine armed forces. The helicopters are likely to be used in Duterte’s scorched earth counterinsurgency campaign on the island of Mindanao, where 450,000 people have been driven from their homes by indiscriminate aerial attacks. As the U.S. State Department has noted in its annual human rights report, the killings have included environmentalists and land rights activists with no connection to the armed opponents of the government.
If anything, the regime’s repression has gotten worse during the pandemic, with over 30,000 people arrested for alleged violations of social distancing rules, many of them herded into overcrowded prisons or placed in dog cages, where they are at far greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, President Duterte has been granted emergency powers akin to martial law and has used them to harshly crack down on critics of the regime, including news outlets that dare to raise questions about its mishandling of the pandemic. Even voluntary aid groups that have been providing food aid to people not reached by the government’s inadequate assistance programs have been harassed and arrested by the police and military.
The Philippine deal is just one of many examples of the Trump administration’s penchant for arming authoritarian regimes, often citing the economic benefits of weapons exports, which it gives preference over human rights and security concerns. Just this week Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezOvernight Defense & National Security — Blinken heads to the hot seat Blinken to testify before Senate panel next week on Afghanistan Overnight Health Care — FDA vaccine scientists depart amid booster drama MORE (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, revealed that there is a deal in the works to sell more precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, which is waging a brutal war in Yemen in which it has killed thousands of civilians in air strikes carried out with U.S. aircraft and bombs. Last year Congress voted to block a similar deal, only to have its action vetoed by President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE.
And that’s not all. In addition to the offer of attack helicopters to the Philippines, the Trump administration is seeking to close deals for thousands of armored vehicles to the United Arab Emirates, which has been implicated in running secret torture sites in Yemen, diverting U.S.-supplied weapons to extremist militias and members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and arming opposition forces in Libya in violation of a United Nations arms embargo.
The administration is also offering upgraded Apache attack helicopters to Egypt, where the al-Sisi regime has killed thousands of non-violent opponents and thrown tens of thousands of critics in jail, even as it wages a harsh counterterror campaign marked by arbitrary arrests, torture, the forced removal of thousands of people from their homes and the bombing of civilian targets.
Several members of Congress are organizing a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Esper demanding a delay in the flood of arms sales announced in the past few months to allow Congress adequate time to be briefed on and carefully consider each of them. In an ideal world, Congress would block all of the sales specifically mentioned above, which are likely to cause suffering in the recipient countries even as they undermine long-term U.S. interests in peace and stability in key regions. But it’s not an easy task. It currently takes a veto proof majority – two-thirds of both houses of Congress – to stop an arms sale. The procedure should be reversed, so that major arms sales cannot go forward without explicit congressional approval.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised serious questions about how best to protect the United States and the world. Mindlessly trafficking in weapons to questionable regimes is just one of the things that needs to change.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.