USA must not ‘open the floodgates’ of weapons to Iraq and Syria

The US Congress risks supplying fresh weapons to forces and armed groups with terrible human rights records in Iraq and Syria if it approves Obama administration proposals to waive human rights screening requirements on military aid, Amnesty International said ahead of a Senate vote on key military legislation on Tuesday.  

“In its rush to ‘degrade and destroy’ the Islamic State armed group, the Obama administration must not trample its international human rights obligations,” said Sunjeev Bery, Advocacy Director, Middle East North Africa at Amnesty International USA.

“If approved, these new legislative proposals could simply open the floodgates, putting more weapons into the hands of armed groups alleged to have committed serious human rights abuses in both Iraq and Syria.”

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) legislation currently before the US Congress would give the administration the ability to waive important human rights screening requirements for recipients of US arms and military training in Iraq and Syria. This includes Iraqi military and security forces, Kurdish and tribal security forces, and other local security forces. Already passed by the House of Representatives on 4 December, the bill now faces a looming vote in the Senate.

Amnesty International is urging Congress to reject such legislative language and closely monitor other legislation proposed by the White House in the months ahead.  

The Leahy Law prohibits the supply of most types of US military aid and training to foreign security, military and police units credibly alleged to have committed “gross human rights violations”. The Arms Trade Treaty, which the USA has signed but not yet ratified, obliges all governments to assess the risk of transferring arms, ammunition or components to another country and to prohibit the transfer where there is an overriding risk that they could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

“Members of Congress should vote against such proposals in the NDAA and other legislation. In whatever form such legislation passes, Congress must closely monitor how the administration provides military aid. Congress must push the White House and Pentagon to ensure all recipients of foreign military aid are thoroughly vetted in line with existing US laws,” said Sunjeev Bery.

Amnesty International has documented serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by state forces, state-backed militias and armed groups operating in Iraq and Syria. Unrestricted US military aid could make matters even worse. 

“To the victims of atrocities during armed conflict, it’s largely irrelevant what uniform the perpetrators wear. Before releasing any new military aid to Iraq, the US authorities must thoroughly vet all recipients, whether they are state-sponsored forces or not, to rule out a substantial risk they will commit further serious abuses,” said Sunjeev Bery. 

Arms proliferation – including of substantial stocks of US-made weapons and munitions – is already a serious concern in Iraq and Syria, with weapons and munitions getting diverted to armed groups and militias through illicit traffic, widespread corruption and battlefield capture. Given the region’s history of uncontrolled arms proliferation and the massive current risk of diversion, the USA, along with all other suppliers of arms and ammunition to region, must exercise extreme caution. 

Any new arms transfers to the region risk facilitating further serious abuses unless adequate safeguards are in place, including: 

•A detailed register of all arms and ammunition sent to the region. 

•Rigorous vetting and background screening of the human rights record of potential recipients of training or arms. 

•Assessment of the chain of command and accountability mechanisms to ensure arms and equipment are managed and used lawfully. 

•US training of the armed groups and forces must respect international human rights and humanitarian law. 

•Proper accounting for the storage, registration and use of all weapons, ammunition and related equipment by combatants and law enforcement officials. 

•Effective marking of all arms, ammunition and related equipment; safe and secure storage of stockpiles of all weapons, ammunition and related equipment; and detailed record keeping of stocks, suppliers, storage, possession, use and disposal. 

•Effective systems to record which personnel are authorized to carry and use weapons and ammunition. 

•An explicit agreement that no weapons or munitions will be supplied that are inherently indiscriminate and banned under international law. These include anti-personnel land mines, cluster munitions and chemical weapons. 

Amnesty International calls on the USA to ratify the international Arms Trade Treaty, which enters into force on 24 December.