Recently, Amnesty International USA sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking that he use the power of his office to address three key issues in international human rights abuses before he leaves the White House in January. Besides urging the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize to close Guantánamo and end indefinite detention, and to grant temporary protected status for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras noting that "Stark homicide rates, ineffective legal structures, and corrupt law enforcement officials have forced many people to flee their homes...to seek refuge in Mexico and the United States," the letter called on the US to end military aid to Israel with the exception of purely defensive weapons.
The third request follows the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding increasing US military aid to Israel to $38 billion over the next ten years. AI only takes a position on arms that can be used to violate human rights, but this applies to $33 billion of that package. The memorandum comes just after the US once again condemned the building of yet another illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. So thus once again we are faced with a situation of cognitive dissonance.
The pledge of $38 billion to Netanyahu came with some concessions on his part--according to Reuters, Israel promised "not to seek additional funds from Congress beyond what will be guaranteed annually in the new package, and to phase out a special arrangement that has allowed Israel to spend part of its U.S. aid on its own defense industry instead of on American-made weapons." But nothing at all about the Occupation or the expansion of illegal settlements, both violations of human rights.
As the AI USA letter notes, "by continuing to provide billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, the U.S. government is helping to perpetuate the human rights crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Despite previous talk of a U.S.-backed 'peace process,' the reality is that the U.S. has consistently provided the weapons, ammunition and fuel that Israel has used to facilitate serious human rights and humanitarian law violations."
It asks Obama to "prevent U.S. weapons from being used to commit human rights and humanitarian law violations by recipients of U.S. security assistance," noting that "Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other U.S. allies in the Middle East have engaged in widespread repression and violations of human rights. Your administration has continued to sell weapons and provide military assistance to these governments despite evidence that such arms have been used to commit violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. We urge you to take stronger action to ensure that U.S. military aid and arms sales do not support such violations. That is why you should cancel the over $2 billion in recent arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as well as the recently announced $33 billion in military aid via foreign military financing for Israel that was included in the new 10 year agreement with the Government of Israel."
Amnesty International is not alone in making this request. The growing list includes most recently churches like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches, and others.
I spoke with Sunjeev Bery, Advocacy Director, Middle East North Africa, for Amnesty International USA:
DP-L: Why did Amnesty International choose these three specific areas?
SB: Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are some of the largest recipients of either military aid or arms sales from the U.S. And all three countries' governments are major human rights violators. It is important for President Obama to address this negative legacy of his foreign policy before he leaves office.
At present, President Obama has renewed U.S. military aid to Israel's government, which has continued to take occupied Palestinian land, often at gunpoint, to build Jewish-only Israeli settlements. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has also continued to back the U.S.-Egypt military relationship, despite the Egyptian government's massive crackdown on thousands of perceived critics. And of course there are the billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a government that has bombed many civilian communities in next-door Yemen, leaving U.S. bomb fragments in the rubble.
DP-L: Is this request something unusual for AI to do?
SB: No, Amnesty International regularly lobbies governments, including the U.S., to bring their policies in line with human rights standards. The U.S. government should not be giving or selling weapons to governments when there is a substantial risk that those weapons would be used to violate human rights.
DP-L: Clearly US and Israel struck a deal with regard to the issue of military aid, but the US said nothing about human rights. Why is it so hard to attach the issue of human rights to these political decisions?
SB: My personal suspicion is that if the Obama Administration were to publicly acknowledge the human rights effects of its arms policies, it would be forced to discontinue those policies. Thousands of Palestinians, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Saudis have suffered greatly under the arms trade and military aid policies of the Obama Administration. So the Obama Administration continues to avoid blunt talk about its military allies' behaviors, while allowing the weapons to keep flowing.