White House selective in arms deals where civilian deaths are concerned

Men inspect a house destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

One senator’s human rights objections prevented the U.S. from selling 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines’ national police, according to new reports. Four senators raised similar concerns about a $1.5 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, but could not stop the sale.

The opposing outcomes lay bare the arbitrary application of human rights concerns and the inner workings of the U.S. political system and how it deal with its allies.

Sen. Ben Cardin, the most senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, objected to the deal with the Philippines. When the White House got word of his opposition, the deal was effectively over. The recently frosty relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines became even colder.

In a televised address, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte slammed those blocking the deal as “fools” and “monkeys” and said there are plenty of options to purchase the guns.

“Russia, they are inviting us. China also. China is open, anything you want, they sent me brochure saying we select there, we’ll give you,” he said in the address. “But I am holding off because I was asking the military if they have any problem. Because if you have, if you want to stick to America, fine. But, look closely and balance the situation, they are rude to us.”

More than 3,800 people have died in Duterte’s war on drugs. Police target drug gangs and dealers without due process. Human rights groups have criticized the crackdown, saying the killings are extrajudicial murders. Cardin expressed concern that the guns would be used by police to continue the campaign.

A month ago, a group of senators failed to prevent the $1.15 billion sale of tanks and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia on humanitarian grounds. A bipartisan coalition of four senators managed to force a debate and vote on the sale. They argued that the sale involved the U.S. in a war in Yemen that Congress did not approve and supported the indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

“There have already been thousands and thousands of civilians killed,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said during the Senate debate. “If you talk to Yemenis, they will tell you that this is perceived inside Yemen as not a Saudi-led bombing campaign, which it’s broadly advertised in the newspapers, but as a U.S. bombing campaign, or at best, a U.S.-Saudi bombing campaign. There is a U.S. imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen, which is radicalizing the people of this country against the United States.”

At least 10,000 civilians have been killed or wounded since the Saudi-led coalition started its campaign in March 2015. Most senators were not swayed from the deal by reports that the coalition bombed hospitals and schools.

Those who defended the weapons sale to Saudi Arabia cited the need to maintain close ties with the country. They made little to no mention about the human toll. Instead, they focused on the special relationship with Saudi Arabia and the potential harm that could come if the deal were canceled.

“I oppose that motion because I believe it would harm our nation’s long-term strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said during the Senate debate. “It would further damage our alliance and partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a time when our moderate Sunni Arab allies are questioning whether our nation is able to meet our traditional commitment to the region. The resolution would also ignore the shared interests we have with Saudi Arabia in combating al-Qaida and ISIL.”

The measure lost 26 to 71.

Two debates over U.S. arms deals, civilian deaths and long-standing U.S. ally relationships. Two very different outcomes.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.