Russia Arms Deal With Bahrain Shows Why We Need an Arms Trade Treaty

As Mark wrote earlier, a proposed UN Arms Trade Treaty has no authority over the internal sale of arms. But Russia’s recent deal with Bahrain does show how and why a potential arms trade treaty could help prevent weapons from landing in the hands of human rights abusers around the world.

Rosoboronexport, Russia’s sole state intermediary for arms transfers, is looking to Bahrain as a potential customer for its small arms despite recent internal unrest and abuse by government forces. Inspired by other uprisings, Bahrain’s Shiite community has called for political reforms and greater rights only to face crackdowns that have left at least 32 dead.

“The relationship between Russia and Bahrain has been increasingly getting stronger,” Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, a Bahraini government spokesman, said by phone on Aug. 24 from the capital, Manama. “We are looking to cooperate with Russia in trade and technical services. One of the fields is in the area of light arms.”

He declined to comment on the details of specific contracts. Rosoboronexport Chief Executive Officer Anatoly Isaikin last week said Bahrain has become a new customer for Russian armaments.

“States in the region are interested in Russian air-defense systems, aviation equipment and weapons for ground forces,” the Moscow-based company said in an e-mailed response Aug. 24 to questions from Bloomberg News about the arms deal.

Prior to the uprisings and subsequent crackdown, France and the United Kingdom had been Bahrain’s primary arms suppliers, but both countries revoked export licenses over human rights concerns. Although the United States added Bahrain to its list of human rights violators in June, Bahrain has escaped any real censure for a host of reasons. Russia, which lost $4bn over the cancellation of contracts with Libya, may see Bahrain as a safe customer that is unlikely to see the same degree of international involvement.

Russia will also continue to deliver on contracts signed with Syria despite Assad’s brutal response to protests. According to Bloomberg, Rosoboronexport’s chief executive Anatoly Isaikin said, “There are no sanctions, and we have received no such government instructions. So we are obliged to fulfill our contracts.”

The continued supply of weapons to repressive regimes is nothing new, but it does highlight the need for a globally binding Arms Trade Treaty that restricts transfers to human rights abusers. Continuing to supply arms even as government forces gun down peaceful protesters sends the message that the supplier believes the recipient government is still legitimate. An Arms Trade Treaty that held states parties responsible for the end use of their arms exports and imposed real consequences for their misuse could provide a strong disincentive in these circumstances.