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November 01, 2016

Ending “Business as Usual” with Rosobronexport

By Laure Bokobza

In June 2013 Human Rights First issued a blueprint calling on the United States to stop doing business with Russian state-owned arms dealer Rosoboronexport because the company—which the U.S. government contracted with to provide Afghanistan National Security Forces with Mi-17 helicopters—was supplying the Assad regime with weapons it then used to murder Syrian civilians. We advocated for clear legislation forbidding contracts with the arms exporter, and called on the Department of Defense (DoD) to find viable alternatives to the Russian supplied weapons to guarantee Afghanistan’s security needs.

Three years have gone by, and it is perplexing that the recommendations we made have still not been implemented. Despite growing concerns from human rights organizations and Congress, the sanctions imposed on Rosoboronexport have not prevented the Pentagon from pursuing its dealings with the arms exporter, using national security waivers and amendments to bypass the existing restrictions.

As far as public information allows us to assess, the Pentagon has not bought any more helicopters since June 2013. Nonetheless, the DoD is still doing business with Rosoboronexport for the maintenance of Mi-17 helicopters in Afghanistan, as well as purchasing spare parts for these aircraft. And so it continues to use American taxpayer dollars to support a company that supplies Assad’s forces the weapons used to commit mass atrocities in Syria.

The Obama Administration has shown considerable reluctance to sever ties to Rosoboronexport. Instead, the DoD has been intent on finding loopholes in the existing legislation to bypass the sanctions imposed by Congress. For example, the sanctions imposed on Rosoboronexport by State Department determination in September 2015 on the grounds that it had violated the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act were partially lifted two short months later with respect to  the “maintenance, repair, overhaul or sustainment of Mi-17 helicopters for the purpose of providing assistance to the security forces of Afghanistan, as well as for the purpose of combating terrorism and violent extremism globally.

Besides allowing the Pentagon to deal with Rosoboronexport for the maintenance of existing aircraft in Afghanistan, a recent amendment to the 2017 DoD Appropriations Act allows for possibly reinstating relations with the arms exporter at the discretion of the Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence. 

Now that Russia is directly engaged in the conflict in Syria backing the Assad regime the case for a complete boycott of Rosoboronexport is even stronger.

By dealing with a company that is feeding lethal weapons to Bashar al-Assad, the United States is supporting an arms supplier that could bear criminal liability as an accessory to the war crimes and crimes against humanity currently being perpetrated in Syria. The U.S. government is thus undermining its own strong criticism of the Assad regime and its Russian backers, and squandering an opportunity to isolate and apply economic pressure on Russia for its complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. By continuing its commercial relationship with Rosoboronexport the Pentagon is supporting an enabler of mass atrocities.

As we recommended in 2013, the DoD should find a sustainable alternative to Rosoboronexport, preventing Afghan dependence on Russia for its current and future security needs.

Congress should adopt a consistent long-term sanctions policy and enact tighter legislation that forces the DoD to cancel all contracts with Rosoboronexport, thus assuming its responsibility to ensure that American taxpayer dollars are not used in a morally reprehensible way that ultimately threatens U.S. security interests. Congress should demand more accountability from the Pentagon (and from U.S. companies) on their dealings with Rosoboronexport and the detailed nature of ongoing contracts.

We also encourage the United States to turn to its allies, several of whom are also involved with Rosoboronexport or its parent company Rostec Corp through contracts or joint ventures, despite existing E.U. sanctions.

While collective action through the U.N. Security Council remains blocked by Russia’s veto power, the United States and its allies can do more to penalize arms suppliers that are fueling grave violations of international law in Syria, instead of helping them make profits. A firmer collective stance against Rosoboronexport is achievable. Renouncing the currently prevailing and morally unacceptable “business as usual” approach is one way to increase pressure on Moscow to adopt a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.