Global Ethics Corner: Should America Stop Selling Weapons to Human Rights Violators?

July 13, 2012

2011 was a bad year for dictators. But it was a stellar year for American arms dealers. Commercial arms sales shot up by a third, resulting in 44 billion dollars in sales. That makes the United States the world's top supplier of major conventional weapons.

The boom in arms profits comes at a steep social price. A new State Department report shows that some of the new buyers of U.S. arms are countries with questionable human rights records, like Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and India. Long-time buyers of U.S. arms include Egypt, Algeria, and Israel.

According to activists, many of these countries are rampant human rights abusers. They're accused of infringing on free speech, free assembly, and political choice. Several are accused of condoning torture, rape, and even extrajudicial killings. By selling weapons to human rights offenders, critics say the U.S. is complicit in such atrocities.

American officials have acknowledged that many of their arms trade partners commit human rights abuses. But officials also argue that U.S. national security is the top priority. They also point out that most U.S. arms sales include tools like fighter jets that help countries beef up their external defenses, but don't facilitate internal suppression. And realistically, even if the U.S. stopped selling arms to autocrats, it's likely that other countries that sell arms like Russia or China would pick up those customers.

That's why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others are calling for a global treaty mandating greater transparency on international arms exports. The UN is scheduled to debate that treaty later this month. Where will you weigh in on the debate? Should the U.S stop selling arms to human rights violators? Is transparency enough?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Zach Toombs and Jeffrey R. Smith, "Why Is the U.S. Selling Billions in Weapons to Autocrats?," Foreign Policy, June 21, 2012.

Section 655 Annual Military Assistance Reports, U.S. Department of State


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