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US Human Rights Policy and Weapons Transfers: White House directive Puts Question Mark on Defense Cooperation with Spain

On 15 January 2014 the White House issued a new Presidential Policy Directive on “United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy”. This new regulation, replacing a 1995 text, refers among others […]

Help Catalonia
Help Catalonia 12/03/2016

On 15 January 2014 the White House issued a new Presidential Policy Directive on “United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy”. This new regulation, replacing a 1995 text, refers among others to the “need for restraint against the transfer of arms that would … serve to facilitate human rights abuses”. This provision may pose an obstacle to future weapons sales and other forms of cooperation with Spain, given that Madrid is repeatedly threatening Catalonia to use military force to prevent the exercise of the right to self-determination. The threats come from both officials and military personnel, with none of the latter having been court-martialed. The very real prospects of a coup could be deeply embarrassing to the United States, should Madrid employ US-made or designed weapons. Already, low-level flights by US-made F-18s have been reported in Western Catalonia, although they have failed to intimidate the civilian population. Although the 15 January 2014 Presidential Directive does not provide for a straight ban on sales to non-democratic regimes, its provisions clearly point out that it is not US policy to transfer conventional weapons for use in political repression. Furthermore, in the case of Spain, being a security consumer and unreliable ally, there are no strategic reasons to turn a blind eye to potential human rights violations. The White House would do well to suspend any conventional weapons sales to Spain pending a public commitment by Madrid not to employ them to repress Catalans.


Spain conquered Catalonia in 1714, opening up three centuries of human rights abuses which continue to this day. Repression, exile, linguistic persecution, and all sorts of restrictions, have characterized these three centuries. Despite partial democratization following Franco's death in 1975, and a measure of autonomy for Catalonia following the return of exiled Prime Minister Tarradellas in 1977, the dream of a fully democratic Spain, respectful of Catalans' civil rights, has gradually revealed itself as no more than a utopia. Catalan citizens, organizations, parties, and institutions, have repeatedly tried to seek a compromise solution whereby Catalonia would remain in Spain albeit with legal guarantees of self-government and human rights. The latest attempt, the 2006 reform of her Statute of Autonomy (laying down the powers of Catalan institutions and the basic human rights of Catalans), unleashed a political storm, with a strong Spanish reaction against and a counterattack seeking to put an end to the limited post-Franco concessions. This includes, among others, an attempt to stamp out Catalan from schools. As a result, a growing majority of Catalans decided it was time to go to the polls to decide their future, in accordance with the internationally-recognized and US-supported principle of self-determination, laid down in President Wilson's 14 Points and the Atlantic Charter, signed by President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill. A semi-official referendum took place on 9 November 2014 but Madrid, instead of democratically campaigning to convince Catalan voters to choose to remain in Spain, launched a wave of cyberattacks against Catalan Government websites, targeting among others the public healthcare system, and charged President Mas and other officials. In the wake of the vote, and the later 27 September 2015 single-issue election (resulting in a pro-independence majority), newspapers have kept reporting subtle and not so subtle threats to employ military force to retain Catalonia, the same military force that secured Spanish sovereignty over the country in the first place.


The question is thus: does the 15 January White House Directive prevent future weapons transfers to Spain? In order to answer, we have to examine two different aspects. First, whether such weapons may be used to commit human rights abuses. Second, whether there may be other policy considerations, contained in the 15 January Directive, which may allow the White House to disregard the former and proceed anyway with weapons transfers or cooperation. Let us have a look at both.


Concerning human rights, both threats and actual instances confirm that Madrid is ready to use force.


With regard to other policy considerations, it is a complex area, since Washington may legitimately be concerned that making Madrid lose face may prompt a further radicalization of Spanish authorities. The United States may also be worried about Spanish contributions to international operations, such as counterpiracy operations in the Indian Ocean, and intelligence sharing in the fight against international terrorism. These contributions are already limited, given that Spain has persistently excluded itself, for example, from successive editions of BALTOPS. Furthermore, a significant portion of Spanish naval capabilities are employed to harass Gibraltar, rather than being available to NATO.


A possibility would be for Washington to prepare a package of limited, perhaps informal sanctions, and inform Spanish authorities that they will be implemented unless they commit themselves not to use force. This would send a shot across the bow to the Spanish military, warning them that repressing civilians is not only not in line with US values and interests, but a distraction from what their role should be at a time of growing tensions on a number of fronts, including Russia. It would also be very positive for the US Navy to increase naval visits to Barcelona, ensuring a regular presence in Catalonia's capital city. The US Navy already sent a ship in the run up to the 9 November 2014 referendum, in a move widely noted by Catalan observers.


Beyond purely military matters, there is another reason why it is clearly contrary to the US national interest to see Spain employ force in a desperate attempt to retain her hold over Catalonia. This would harden Catalan attitudes towards Spain's national debt, which at 100 percent of its GDP is clearly unsustainable. Should Catalonia recover independence without taking up a share, Madrid would default, threatening the euro's very existence and with it the stability of the world financial system. Rather than face this prospect, it may be better for Washington to discreetly intervene, ensuring that force is not used by Spain and that Catalonia reacts by refusing to take up a share of this unsustainable debt.


To conclude, the 15 January 2014 Presidential Policy Directive on “United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy” does not provide a detailed set of criteria regulating weapons transfers to semi or non-democratic regimes, but makes it clear that subject to national security considerations it is US policy to try to avoid indirectly facilitating violence against civilians. America has legitimate reasons to try to prevent Madrid from moving even further away from NATO, and can thus be expected to be prudent when it comes to dealing with the Spanish military. However, failing to act now may prompt an even greater diversion of already limited resources towards repression, weakening the Atlantic Alliance at a time of growing tensions with Russia. Furthermore, moving beyond threats to actual widespread resort to violence may prompt a Catalan refusal to take up a portion of Spain's national debt on recovering independence, with the resulting default by Madrid and negative impact on international financial stability. For all this reasons, the best solution could be for Washington to discreetly press the Spanish military to renounce the use of force against Catalonia, backing this up with necessary with limited, informal sanctions, such as restrictions on exchange programs. A more regular naval presence in Barcelona could also help send the message that what Madrid must do, is to close ranks with NATO, start taking part in BALTOPS, and cease and desist in the use of actual or threatened violence against Gibraltar and Catalonia.

By Àlex Calvo