Governments and companies around the world should stop signing new contracts with arms suppliers such as the Russian firm Rosoboronexport that are providing weapons to the Syrian government. In light of compelling evidence that the Syrian army is responsible for crimes against humanity against Syria’s people, the Russian state-owned arms trading company’s continued dealings with Syria place the company at risk of complicity in these crimes, Human Rights Watch warned in a letter to the company made public today.
Under international law, providing weapons to Syria while crimes against humanity are being committed may translate into assisting in the commission of those crimes. Any arms supplier could bear potential criminal liability as an accessory to those crimes and could face prosecution, Human Rights Watch said. Rosoboronexport is widely reported to be Syria’s main weapons supplier, but all other suppliers of arms to Syria should be subject to the same scrutiny, Human Rights Watch said.
“Rosoboronexport’s clients should distance themselves from the company until it stops selling arms to Syria,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The bottom line is that no one should do new business with any company that may be an accomplice to crimes against humanity.”
Some of the recent and planned Rosoboronexport weapons supplies raise serious concerns, given Syria’s year-long use of the military against Syrian cities and towns, Human Rights Watch said. The company’s known weapons deals significantly enhance Syria’s military capability at a time when it is engaged in serious crimes, and the arms potentially could be used in its assaults on civilians. For example, combat aircraft could be used in assaults on civilian areas.
Third parties in the weapons trade, particularly other buyers of weapons and those involved in promotional activities for the industry, should distance themselves from Syria’s main arms supplier, Human Rights Watch said. They should avoid any new business contracts with Rosoboronexport until it verifiably ceases providing weapons to Syria.
Companies and governments should also consider suspending any current dealings with the company until they conduct a full review of its role in providing support and assistance to the Syrian army’s ongoing attacks, and its risk of complicity. They should evaluate any commercial contracts with Rosoboronexport such as weapons deals, the company’s planned appearances in arms trade shows, and its advertising in industry publications.
The same applies to any other supplier of weapons and related materiel or other forms of military or security assistance to the Syrian government in the current context, Human Rights Watch said. Any such firm – whether public or private – should immediately suspend its dealings with Syria, and if it doesn’t, its clients should consider ending business dealings with the company, subject to a thorough review of the arms supplier’s role as a potential accomplice to crimes against humanity.
Human Rights Watch has previously called for an arms embargo on the Syrian government. In the United States, 17 senators led by John Cornyn of Texas, together with US civic groups, called for the US government to withdraw from contracts worth nearly $1 billion with Rosoboronexport.
The US Defense Department has refused to reconsider a planned $375 million purchase of 21 helicopters from the company for Afghanistan. In a letter to Cornyn, US Undersecretary for Policy James Miller said the deal was “critical” to US interests in Afghanistan even though he is aware “that Rosoboronexport continues to supply weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime” and “there is evidence that some of these arms are being used by Syrian forces against Syria’s civilian population.” The US government has called on Russia and other countries to cease arms deliveries to Syria.
“Taking a ‘business as usual’ approach with Rosoboronexport shouldn’t be an option,” Roth said. “The US needs to reconsider both the planned helicopter purchase from Rosoboronexport and the option of additional purchases that are allowed within this contract.”
Rosoboronexport has declined to renounce publicly its ties to the Syrian government. Although in recent weeks the company has refused to comment on the matter, it previously has been outspoken in defense of its supplies to Syria and said they will continue as long as there are no sanctions in place or orders from the Russian authorities to halt deliveries.
“We understand the situation has become aggravated in Syria,” a Rosoboronexport spokesman, Vyacheslav Davidenko, told the New York Times in February. “But since there are no international decisions, and there are no sanctions from the UN Security Council, and there are no other decisions, our cooperation with Syria – the military-technical cooperation – remains quite active and dynamic.” His comment echoed earlier statements by the head of the company, Anatoly Isaikin.
Detailed information linking particular weapons transfers and how the equipment is used inside the country is extremely difficult to obtain, Human Rights Watch said. Moreover, the Syrian army is known to use a considerable amount of older Russian equipment, some dating to the Soviet era.
“The Security Council should impose a mandatory international arms embargo on Syria, and Russia and China should not block it,” Roth said. “With the Syrian government committing crimes against humanity, other governments and companies around the world should use whatever leverage they have to stop further arms supplies that could contribute to these crimes.”
Rosoboronexport did not respond to the questions in Human Rights Watch’s letter, sent on April 6, 2012, eventually replying in mid-May that the matters raised were outside of the company’s competence. It referred the questions to the Russian Foreign Ministry, to which Human Rights Watch had also sent the letter and which did not respond.
An April 18 news report that Russian officials had decided to cease sending supplies of light weapons to Syria has not been confirmed. As recently as May 14, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov defended Russian weapons supplies to Syria’s government, reiterating Moscow’s position that, “We do not supply any offensive weapons, we are talking only about defensive weapons,” without providing details. On June 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed that view, saying, “Russia is not shipping weapons that could be used in a civil conflict.”
On May 24, Al Arabiya reported that a shipment of Russian arms was due to arrive in Syria in the next few days. When asked about that shipment, Rosoboronexport’s spokesman said he did not have information on the ship in question and noted that Rosoboronexport’s “policy is not to comment on individual shipments, regarding contents or timing.” The Russian foreign ministry told Reuters that it did not have information on a ship carrying weapons to Syria but declined to comment further.
Reuters reported that the ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartus on May 26 and unloaded a cargo of heavy weapons, citing a Western diplomat