December 24, 2019 – In the past few years we’ve seen U.S.-made planes and weapons bomb children in Yemen; gross violations of human rights by recipients of U.S. arms in places such as Cameroon and Nigeria; tear gas canisters labeled “made in the USA” fired at pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; and a steady stream of American guns fueling homicide crises in Jamaica and Central America — to name just a few. And yet, each renewed call for conditioning arms sales on human rights is met with a predictable response from the government and arms industry: If we make it harder to buy U.S. weapons, foreign governments will simply turn to Russia and China for their arms, and we’ll have lost the economic benefit and political influence over the recipient country.
It’s a claim so common it’s often treated as fact. But given what is at stake — the human lives at risk and America’s reputation — perhaps we too rarely stop to ask whether these arguments actually are true. And if they are, does it matter?