The Biden administration notified Congress in June of a proposed sale of more than $2.5 billion in arms to the Philippines, including fighter jets and two kinds of precision missiles. The notice came less than two weeks after the International Criminal Court prosecutor sought approval to open a formal investigation into crimes against humanity related to the Philippines’ brutal “war on drugs.”
Human rights groups promptly expressed concern that the administration would reward an increasingly abusive government with such a large weapons sale, particularly given public pledges by both President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the new administration would put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.
This is not the first time in the Biden administration’s short tenure that it has found itself the object of criticism following an arms sale announcement. In February, the United States approved plans to sell Egypt missiles worth $197 million. In May, news broke of an approved arms sale worth $735 million of precision-guided weapons to Israel amid its latest military offensive in Gaza, where it used large, precision-guided munitions to destroy multi-story buildings containing scores of businesses and homes on the pretext of some unproven Hamas presence at those sites. According to the United Nations, Israeli airstrikes in May killed 260 Palestinians in Gaza, at least 129 of whom were civilians, including 66 children.
To put it bluntly, the Biden administration is selling weapons to at least three human rights abusers — the Philippines, Egypt and Israel— despite a pledge to make human rights central to its foreign policy.
The Philippine military has long been responsible for serious abuses in its counterinsurgency operations, including the extrajudicial killing of political activists, peasant organizers and Indigenous leaders. It has also engaged in “red-tagging,” accusing leftist activists of links to the communist insurgency, frequently resulting in the activists’ murders.
The government of President Rodrigo Duterte has been unwilling to acknowledge abuses let alone address them, and the Biden administration did not tie the sale to any conditions — at least not publicly. The day after the notification, the head of the Philippines police announced the creation of a new armed militia to be a “force multiplier” to assist counterinsurgency efforts and the “drug war.”
Arms sales and $1.3 billion in annual security assistance to Egypt are continuing despite years of deteriorating human rights conditions under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, from probable war crimes in a protracted military campaign in North Sinai, to thousands of dissidents arbitrarily detained, indefinitely held, and subjected to torture and other ill treatment.
The Egyptian government has not even feigned pursuing accountability for the widespread and systematic killings of at least 1,150 demonstrators in 2013, at least 817 of them in one day at one protest site. In fact, days before this latest arms sale was announced, Egyptian officials raided the homes of human rights defender Mohamed Soltan’s family in Egypt, arbitrarily detaining several of his cousins.
The Gaza conflict took place against the backdrop of escalating repression of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, including use of excessive force against worshipers at al-Aqsa Mosque, and discriminatory efforts by Israeli authorities to remove Palestinian families from their homes — policies and actions that are part of the Israeli government’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.
Talking about arms sales as solely a military or security matter, distinct from other diplomatic and human rights priorities, is a well-trod path for U.S. officials. But practically speaking, that approach has considerable consequences for the United States’ ability to protect and promote human rights.
The Biden administration should live up to its human rights commitments. If it can’t or won’t, Congress should exercise greater oversight and oppose sales to abusive regimes. The Philippines sale can still be halted if Congress passes legislation preventing the sale from moving forward.
The fact that in just its first half year in office the administration has notified Congress of three major weapons sales to notoriously abusive governments is highly troubling. Congress should pressure the administration to ensure that U.S. sales are not rewarding or encouraging bad behavior, or that arms are not used to further human rights abuses. Congress can do some of this itself by, for example, inserting human rights conditions on the entirety of the security assistance that often funds these sales, as it has done for a small portion of the $1.3 billion in military aid that Egypt receives annually. Congress should also insist that the administration conditions these sales on concrete, verifiable improvements in human rights.
The U.S. government cannot claim to promote human rights while selling advanced weapons to rights-abusing governments. It not only undermines Biden’s credibility, but also undermines respect for human rights across the globe.