Out of Control

excerpted from the book

United States of America - Rights for All

Amnesty International

Amnesty International Publications, 1998

OUT OF CONTROL: US arms and human rights abuses

US companies were the first to develop stun guns for use against human beings and are among the world's leading suppliers. The US government keeps export data on such equipment secret, but in 1998 Amnesty International found leaked government documents showing that the US Commerce Department had licensed the export of thousands of stun guns to Indonesia in 1993, in the face of persistent reports of electro-shock torture by Indonesian government agents.

The US government's claim to promote human rights and freedom around the globe is undermined by its support for armed forces known to commit human rights abuses. The USA has supplied arms, security equipment and training to governments and armed groups that have committed torture, political killings and other human rights abuses in countries around the world. Oversight by public bodies remains inadequate to the task of ensuring that US supplies do not contribute to further human rights violations.

The USA dominates the post-Cold War global market for arms and security equipment. It is estimated that from 1989 to 1996 the USA sold more than $117 billion of arms, about 45 per cent of the global total. Sales are often supported by official financial assistance, military training and logistical support programs. Successive US governments have authorized exports to recipients with a record of human rights abuse, and have failed to publish comprehensive and timely information on the export of US small arms and law enforcement equipment-the most common tools of human rights abuse.

Amnesty International believes that the USA should adopt and rigorously enforce a Code of Conduct to regulate all military, security and police sales and assistance to other countries, in order to ensure that US transfers of such equipment or expertise do not contribute to serious human rights abuses elsewhere. It should publish more information and strengthen the monitoring of end users. The USA should ban outright the export of equipment solely used for executions or torture, and suspend exports of equipment that inherently lends itself to human rights abuse.

Lack of transparency

Although successive US governments have published more information on arms transfers than most other significant arms exporting states, official information on the export of US small arms and security equipment and services has been sparse or non-existent.

Light weapons

Small arms have been the principal weapons used to commit human rights abuses in the world's many internal armed conflicts during the 1990s, where more than 80 per cent of casualties have been civilians, mostly women and children. Yet there is a glaring loophole in Congressional and public scrutiny of US small arms exports: the Arms Export Control Act requires advanced notice to be given to Congress only for arms sales of $14 million or more. Many small arms sales fall below this amount.

In September 1997 the US government released, for the first time since 1981, detailed statistics on military equipment export authorizations. This showed that US arms exports worldwide had grown rapidly. It also showed that the USA had granted export licences for rifles, small arms, pistols, revolvers, ammunition, guns, grenades and riot control chemical weapons to countries where human rights violations were severe and persistent, including Bahrain, Bolivia, Colombia, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

At the time that export licences were being granted to send 47,022 "chemical agents" and 35,844 "pistols and revolvers" to Bahrain, the US State Department was recording that "On a regular basis, from January through to July, the security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and, occasionally, live ammunition to disperse gatherings during which protestors called for the establishment of an elected parliament."

Anti-personnel mines, which have inherently indiscriminate effects, have resulted in innumerable civilian deaths and injuries. In 1994, the US President was the first world leader to call for their "eventual elimination", but the US government refused to sign the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of AntiPersonnel Mines and on Their Destruction (the Ottawa Convention). This Convention was signed by 122 states in Ottawa in December 1997. The governments of China, Egypt, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and South Korea joined the USA in refusing to sign.

Law enforcement equipment

Exports of law enforcement equipment from the USA include items such as handcuffs and tear-gas sprays, and other riot control equipment, but almost no official information is published about this trade. Some items used in the USA and exported, such as leg-irons, thumb-cuffs, electro-shock weapons and OC (pepper) spray, easily or inherently lend themselves to torture, ill-treatment or excessive force. The US government has stated that human rights considerations should be taken into account when making licensing decisions. However, procedures to curb exports of such equipment are grossly inadequate.

There is no requirement to provide prior notification of proposed exports to Congress and no requirement to publish meaningful, detailed data on a regular basis. However, using the US Freedom of Information Act, the Federation of American Scientists showed that from September 1991 to December 1993 the US Commerce Department had issued over 350 export licences worth more than $27 million for: "saps, thumbcuffs, thumb-screws, leg-irons, shackles and handcuffs; specially designed implements of torture [emphasis added]; strait jackets, plastic handcuffs, police helmets and shields". These were issued for 57 countries, many of them with poor human rights records. In addition, over 2,000 licences were issued for 105 countries under another export category, which combined electro-shock batons and cattle prods with shotguns and shells.

Amnesty International and the Federation of American Scientists challenged the US government to reveal which items had been exported to each country. The US Commerce Department refused but, in response to letters from the public, the US Secretary for Commerce stated that his Department had never, nor would it ever, issue export licences for "specially designed implements of torture". It remains unclear exactly which items fall within this definition-at present only one item, "thumbscrews", is listed as indicative.

Commercial confidentiality continues to be used to justify secrecy in this area. Unpublished data leaked from the US Commerce Department shows that electro-shock weapons were licensed for export to several countries where Amnesty International has documented electro-shock torture, including Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

There is no sign that the trade in electro-shock equipment has been curbed. One investigation of US Commerce Department documents in April 1998 found that "a dozen shipments of stun guns and shock batons" had been approved "over the past decade to Saudi Arabia". In 1997 a US-supplied remote control electro-shock belt was being tested in a maximum security prison in South Africa, a country with persistent problems of torture and ill-treatment by members of the security forces.

The USA has also supplied electric shock devices to Mexico despite persistent reports of electro-shock torture. In September 1997 the Mexican "Cobra" security force sprayed water and used electro-shock weapons against peaceful demonstrators protesting against election fraud in Campeche.

Data on export licences issued by the Department of Commerce does not provide a complete picture because many transactions do not require a licence. For example, US exports of law enforcement equipment to Turkey, like all NATO members, are exempt. In addition, despite US law, US companies have arranged supply outlets through third countries. According to police in the United Kingdom (UK), a London trader supplied 200 electro-shock batons from the USA to the Cyprus police, evading a UK ban. Other US companies have supplied electro-shock weapons to Saudi Arabia legally through the UK, and to Romania using illegal routes through Paris, France, London, UK, and Luxembourg.

The USA has exported small arms and riot control equipment, such as tear-gas, to Bolivia, although reports of serious human rights violations have persisted. During April 1998, members of the Bolivian police, army and Mobile Patrol Unit (UMOPAR) fired on demonstrators supporting a general strike. At least 10 people were killed and dozens injured, including women and children, and tear gas canisters were thrown into a school, affecting several children.

Giving away US arms

Military aid by the USA takes many forms, and in some countries gifts from the US government of military and security equipment contribute to ongoing human rights abuses.

Covert supply operations

Successive US governments have conducted covert arms supply operations, despite the human costs. Past US covert operations, such as those in support of armed opposition groups in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of the country (via Pakistan), Angola (via former Zaire), and Nicaragua (via Honduras and El Salvador), have provided weapons and training to forces responsible for large scale human rights abuses. Small arms have spread to surrounding countries many years after they were originally delivered, fuelling continuing violence

Often these operations are only gradually revealed through the work of investigative journalists and human rights defenders. In 1997, the US government released documents relating to the Central Intelligence Agency's role in training the Honduran security force responsible for acts of torture, including rape, and the "disappearances" of over 100 suspected opponents of the government. A senior Honduran training officer claimed in 1995: "The Americans brought the equipment. They gave the training." The US government also acknowledged paying informants known to be responsible for human rights violations in Guatemala.

Surplus weapons

Since 1990 the US government has given away more than $8 billion worth of "surplus" equipment from US military stocks, including 4,000 heavy tanks, 500 bombers and 200,000 light arms. Recipients in 1996 included Bahrain, Colombia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mexico, Peru, and Turkey.

The US President also has "emergency drawdown" authority to hand over US weapons. This authority has been used to provide substantial military aid to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Jordan, as well as helicopters to Colombia, Israel and Mexico.

The Israeli Defense Force used US-supplied helicopters to carry out unlawful and indiscriminate killings of civilians in Lebanon during its 1996 operation "Grapes of Wrath". The Colombian and Mexican armed forces have reportedly used helicopters in support of counterinsurgency operations. Serious human rights violations have been committed against civilians during such operations.

Counter-narcotics programs

Counter-narcotics programs have emerged as a major and growing area of US military assistance. The US Congress approved $230 million of counter-narcotics aid for 1998, mainly for South American countries. Much of this aid is in the form of a wide range of lethal weaponry. Some has been given to governments whose armed forces have been responsible for gross human rights violations.

What type of training?

Thousands of foreign military officers are trained in the USA every year and US armed forces conduct training programs and joint exercises around the globe.

The School of the Americas (SOA), located in Fort Benning, Georgia, is the best known US training facility, but it is only one of more than 150 centres in the USA and abroad where foreign officers are trained. A number of SOA "alumni" have been implicated in gross human rights violations. US officials maintain that current trainees are vetted to exclude human rights violators and that courses now include human rights training.

Mexican military officers recently trained by the USA have been accused of gross human rights violations. For example, members of a counter-insurgency force set up in 1994 and known as GAFE (AirMobile Special Forces Group) were in military custody at the time of writing, accused of killing one man and torturing several others in San Juan de Ocotan, Jalisco state, in December 1997. GAFE officers have been trained by the US 7th Special Forces group in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; their training reportedly included helicopter assault tactics, explosives, rural and urban warfare. During 1997, 328 Mexican army officers were trained there and subsequently assigned to GAFE units.

The US government has acknowledged that parts of seven Spanish language training manuals prepared and used by US officials as recently as 1991 encouraged the use of murder, coercion and ill-treatment. Other similarly disturbing manuals have also come to light. US officials refused to discipline those responsible for producing these manuals on the grounds that there was no "deliberate attempt to violate" US policy.

More than 100,000 foreign military personnel from over 100 countries have received training under the International Military and Education Training (IMET) program since it was established in 1976. Even more are trained under the Foreign Military Sales program. IMET for Indonesia was cut after the 1991 Indonesian army massacre in East Timor. In 1995, Congress agreed an IMET program for Indonesia limited to training in human rights and civilian control. However, in March 1998 leaked official documents revealed that the US government had secretly used another little-known program - Joint Combined Exchange and Training- to train the Indonesian army, including its notorious special forces command (Kopassus). Training included close quarters combat, sniper techniques, demolitions, psychological operations and urban operations. US combat troops were involved in at least 41 such exercises between 1992 and 1997, and 20 more were scheduled for 1998, despite continued reports of human rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces

Several US companies with close links to the US Department of Defense are now offering military training and other services that used to be provided only by governments. For instance, a US company has received a substantial contract to help train and organize the armed forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Saudi Arabia numerous US companies are training every branch of the armed forces. In 1998, one US company had over 1,000 employees in Saudi Arabia, mostly former US army and special forces personnel, to "modernize" the National Guard, a force responsible for internal security." In October 1997 another US company describing itself as a "defense contractor" sent about 500 retired US special force personnel to the Cabinda enclave of Angola, where civilians are engulfed in a prolonged armed conflict and serious human rights abuses. Sometimes, both US government and private military contractors have provided training and other support for foreign armed forces whose members are committing human rights abuses. This was the case for example in Rwanda from 1996 to 1998; Amnesty International has sought clarification of the US role there.


Several US laws regulate the international transfer of military and security equipment and expertise. Under the Arms Export Control Act, the State Department (Bureau of Political and Military Affairs) must approve all foreign weapons sales. Under the Export Administration Act, all exports of dual (civil-military) use equipment and technologies, and law enforcement equipment, are controlled by the Commerce Department. Human rights concerns, regional stability, non-proliferation and other issues are considered, along with the potential impact on the US arms industry. Decisions are generally made on a case-by-case basis, and in mid-1998, 24 countries were under some form of US arms embargo including Afghanistan, Myanmar (Burma) and Indonesia (light arms prohibited).

Under Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act, the US is required to cut off all security assistance to any government which "engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights" unless the US President deems that there are "extraordinary circumstances". However, Section 502B has never been used to cut off such aid. Likewise, the US Congress has never formally blocked a sale proposed by the US executive branch, although a few sales have been delayed, modified or withdrawn.

Both the US Commerce and State Departments are meant to run programs to verify that sales are going to declared buyers and are being used for legitimate purposes. According to the State Department, foreign governments receiving arms and security equipment from the USA commit themselves to use it "solely for internal security, for legitimate defence, for participation in regional or collective (defense) arrangements or for measures consistent with the Charter of the United Nations". However, information is rarely made public on end-uses which violate international human rights standards and international humanitarian law. Even less is revealed about the activities of private US arms brokers and private military training firms even though they are required under US law to register with the US State Department.

All arms brokers and private military training firms are required under US law to register with the US State Department and both the US Commerce and State Departments run programs to verify that sales are going to declared buyers and are being used for legitimate purposes. However, insufficient information is publicized to allow full scrutiny by Congress or the public.

Recently, the US Congress adopted a new provision known as the Leahy Amendment. This prohibits the USA from providing most forms of security assistance to any military or police unit when there is "credible evidence" that members of the unit are committing gross human rights violations. Assistance can resume if the government in question takes "effective measures" to bring the responsible individuals to justice. How effective this new provision will prove remains to be seen, but it is currently undermined by inadequate end-use monitoring.

International controls

In today's global markets the most effective way to ensure that international arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations is by international agreement. Since the USA is by far the largest supplier, it has a duty to provide a lead.

On 30 May 1997, Amnesty International joined 14 other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in proposing an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers, and the European Union adopted a code of conduct on arms exports in June 1998.

The US House of Representatives passed a proposed national Code of Conduct to regulate conventional arms transfers in 1997, but it has not yet been adopted by the full Congress and has faced opposition from the US arms industry. Under the proposed US Code, weapons can be transferred only to states which meet criteria in four areas: human rights conduct; non-aggression; democratic government; and full participation in the UN Register of Conventional Arms. The proposed Code gives the US President responsibility to seek international agreements to secure arms control using the same criteria. A weakness of the proposed Code was that it allowed the President to waive its provisions if required by national security or emergency, even though Congress may overrule the President. Another weakness was that it covered conventional arms and international military training, but not law enforcement equipment or training.


In order to reinforce the USA's stated commitment not to contribute to human rights abuses in other countries through the supply of military, security and police equipment or expertise, certain immediate changes are necessary in US law and its implementation. Particularly in light of its prominent role in the global arms market, the US government should:

1. Provide clear, detailed, regular and comprehensive information about all prospective and completed transfers of arms and security equipment, technology, expertise, training and services by both private companies and government agencies. All companies involved in such transfers to foreign customers using third countries should be publicly registered with a US agency and subject to the same rules as those that govern all transfers from the USA.

2. Adopt a binding Code of Conduct, based on international humanitarian law and international human rights standards, to monitor and control all US transfers of military, security and police equipment, services and expertise. All proposed transfers, including those brokered through third countries and those involving licensed production arrangements in other countries, should require prior public scrutiny and approval. If there is good reason to assume that a transfer will contribute to human rights abuses or breaches of international humanitarian law, it should not be approved.

3. Strengthen the capacity to monitor the end uses of US transfers of military, security and police equipment, services and expertise in order to ensure that if such transfers are subsequently used to facilitate human rights abuses or breaches of humanitarian law, further supplies of such transfers can be stopped. All end-use certificates should require recipients to undertake in advance not to use the transfers for human rights abuses or breaches of international humanitarian law; failing this the contracts for the supply of those types of transfers can be rendered null and void and further equipment, spare parts, training and repair services halted.

4. Prohibit the manufacture and export of equipment solely used for executions or for torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (including remote control electro-shock stun belts).

Suspend the manufacture, use and export of any type of equipment where credible evidence has shown that it may inherently lend itself to human rights abuse, pending the outcome of a rigorous, independent and impartial inquiry into the use and effects of that type of equipment.

Promote the inclusion of the above provisions in international binding agreements. Sign and encourage ratification of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (the Ottawa Convention).

United States of America - Rights for All

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