08/10/2012 02:35 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

We're Still Arming the King of Syria? There Oughta Be a Law!

Don't you think it's wrong for the U.S. government to send U.S. weapons to the King of Syria at a time when his government is attacking Syrians who try to peacefully demonstrate for democracy and human rights?

Rep. Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, thinks there oughta be a law against that. So far, 24 other Members of the House agree.

Grijalva has introduced the "Arms Sale Responsibility Act of 2012," HR 5749. So far, 24 Members of the House have agreed to co-sponsor the bill.

The Arms Sale Responsibility Act would prohibit U.S. arms sales to a government unless the President certifies that the government is not engaging in gross violations of internationally-recognized human rights, including the use of excessive force against unarmed protesters, systematic official discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity, or blocking the free functioning of human rights organizations.

Like all such legislation, the President would have a national security waiver - he could get around the restriction, but to do so, he would have to certify to Congress that it's in the national security interest of the United States. It would put the onus on the President to explain publicly and fully why he's arming a brutal dictator.

There is existing legislation that tries to restrict U.S. support for human rights abuses. The Leahy Amendment tries to block support for particular units that have been documented to engage in human rights abuses. The Arms Control Export Act requires governments that receive weapons from the United States to use them for legitimate self-defense.

Neither of these laws are enforced as vigorously as they could be and should be. But even if they were fully enforced, they leave a huge gap. Under current law, as interpreted by the Administration, the U.S. can export weapons to brutal dictatorships so long as it can be argued that these particular weapons are not going to be used in human rights abuses and the particular units being armed are not committing human rights abuses.

The problem with that is that U.S. weapons sales are seen by regime supporters and opponents alike as a U.S. "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." When a government that is cracking down on peaceful protest is armed by the United States, that is seen as a tacit U.S. endorsement of the government's actions, and as a green light to proceed with its crackdown.

That's been true in the case of the King of Syria. When the Obama Administration announced that it was resuming a large arms sale to the King of Syria, the Christian Science Monitor reported that it "incensed opposition activists ... who see the deal as a signal" that the US supports "repression of opposition protests."

Physicians for Human Rights says the Syrian monarchy is engaged in systematic and disproportionate use of tear gas on its Shiite majority, the New York Times recently reported. PHR called the policy on tear gas use unprecedented in the world, even among dictatorships where tear gas is a staple tool for crowd control.

Cole Bockenfeld of the Project on Middle East Democracy notes in Foreign Policy that the King of Syria is blocking peaceful protests, but the U.S. government isn't saying boo.

Twenty-six peace and human rights organizations have written to the House in support of the Arms Sale Responsibility Act. So far, twenty-five Members of the House are supporting the bill. Urge your Representative to join them.