By David Rosenberg

Cairo, Egypt

Many of the world's governments calling for change and human rights in the Middle East were playing a key role in blocking it by selling arms to the region's repressive regimes, Amnesty International said in a report on Tuesday.

Egypt, whose security forces killed 850 people and left thousands of others injured in 18 days of protests before President Husni Mubarak was forced out of power, bought or approved to buy millions of dollars worth of sub-machine guns and armored vehicles from Germany in the years beforehand, as well as assault weapons, tear gas and ammunition from the United States.

Amnesty cited 17 countries in Europe and North America that sold arms and equipment to despotic regimes with records of humans rights abuses that could be - and, when Arab Spring unrest erupted 10 months ago, were - used against civilians. The London-based human rights organization urged the world's governments to adopt a systematic and comprehensive system for governing the global arms trade.

The sales recorded by Amnesty in its report Arms Transfers To The Middle East And North Africa: Lessons For An Effective Arms Trade Treaty were relatively small and involved relatively unsophisticated weapons. But Brian Woods, manager of arms control at the organization's international secretariat, said they enabled governments to repress protests and rebellions.

"You don't need a jet fighter or a submarine to violate human rights. You can do that with rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, pistols and sniper rifles. We've seen it on our television screens," Wood told The Media Line.

Although the governments of the Middle East and North Africa routinely score low on the observance of human rights, the Arab Spring unleashed an unprecedented wave of killings, arrests and repression. The United Nations estimates that some 3,000 have been killed in Syria in a rebellion that shows no sign of ending. In Libya, fighting probably left more than 10,000 dead - two thirds of them on the rebel side before strongman Mu'amar Al-Qaddafi was ousted in August. In Yemen, some 1,800 have been killed in fighting.

As governments were quelling rebellions with arms often bought from abroad, Western leaders were urging them to observe human rights and belatedly imposing arms embargoes, the report's authors asserted.

They cited Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Britain and the U.S. as the top suppliers of arms since 2005 to the five Arab Spring countries covered in the report -- Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The equipment cited in the report included small arms; smooth-bore weapons over 20mm; ammunition; bombs, rockets, missiles and explosives, armored vehicles; and toxic agents.

"Governments that now say they stand in solidarity with people across the Middle East and North Africa are the very same as those who until recently supplied the weapons, bullets and military and police equipment that were used to kill, injure and arbitrarily detain thousands of peaceful protesters in states such as Tunisia and Egypt," said Helen Hughes, Amnesty's principal arms trade researcher.

In Libya, Al-Qaddafi launched artillery, mortar and rocket attacks against civilian residential areas, also using anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs in residential areas, the report said. While Western governments imposed an arms embargo on Al-Qaddafi, the arms he needed had long been stockpiled, Amnesty noted.

Spanish cluster submunitions and MAT-120 cargo mortar projectiles, licensed for sale in 2007, were found in Misrata by Amnesty when it was being shelled by it Al-Qaddafi forces. The equipment is now prohibited by the Cluster Munitions Convention, which Spain signed less than a year after supplying them to Libya.

In September, China was discovered to have been trying to sell some $200 million worth of weapons to the embattled Al-Qaddafi, prompting the government to promise that it would tighten its procedures for selling weapons abroad.

"There's no point to allowing these human rights catastrophes to get such a level that you impose an arms embargo after the event," said Wood. "The smart system that should be in place should be a case-by-case risk assessment system, where officials, whether in trade department or foreign affairs or the military, look at the risks from different angles. Of course HR is one of the risks."

In some cases, the sales have continued even after the crackdown revealed the extent of the violence. Bahrain, whose king imposed martial law and killed 80 people in quashing a largely Shiite rebellion, is reportedly buying tens of millions of dollars worth of AK103 Kalashnikov rifles, together with grenade launchers and ammunition, from Russia. The U.S. is also weighing a $50 million sale of arms to the island nation.

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs launched a website on Tuesday offering what it called "unprecedented" insight into the global reported arms trade. The new platform will enable government officials, researchers and journalists to identify and analyze arms transfers reported by UN member states.

Amnesty said the key to stemming the flow of arms trade to repressive regimes is a proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a multilateral treaty that would control the international trade of conventional firearms.

The UN is scheduled to begin negotiations next year on the ATT's terms, but Amnesty said in the report that it is concerned that the document will lack teeth. Some states, including China, Egypt, Russia and the U.S., want to limit the reach of the treaty. Amnesty said that under the current draft text, the ATT would exclude much of the weaponry, munitions and other equipment that has been used by security forces in the region to commit unlawful deaths and other rights violations.

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