By Keith Weir
LONDON (Reuters) - Russia, the United States and European countries ignored fears over human rights abuses and sold large numbers of weapons to governments in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, Amnesty International said in a report on Wednesday.
Rights group Amnesty said the failings showed the need for a meaningful international arms trade treaty to choke off the supply of weapons to countries seen at risk of turning them on their own people.
"The Arab Spring is the reaction of people whose rights have been stripped away by the coercive force of governments and their security forces using the tools supplied from Europe, north America, Russia and elsewhere," said Brian Wood, manager of arms control at Amnesty International.
"It's money and short-sightedness ahead of the rule of law and respect for human rights," he told Reuters.
Amnesty's report examines arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen since 2005.
Austria, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States were identified as the main suppliers to the five, which have all seen popular protests this year against long-established ruling elites.
The United States said last week that it might opt not to sell $53 million in arms to Bahrain as it weighs human rights concerns.
Britain has said it plans to tighten export rules to halt sales of weapons, ammunition and tear gas to countries where security conditions are a concern. Prime Minister David Cameron drew criticism in February when executives from defense companies joined him on a trip to the Gulf.
Amnesty said Russia was the biggest arms supplier to Syria, with a reported 10 percent of all Russian arms exports going there.
It also identified 10 countries which had licensed the supply of weapons to Muammar Gaddafi's Libyan government since 2005, including Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain.
Britain and France played a leading role in international efforts to support rebels who ended Gaddafi's four-decade rule.
Amnesty is pinning its hopes for reform on Arms Trade Treaty talks which are scheduled to resume at the United Nations in February of next year.
It wants a case-by-case review of proposed arms transfers so that the "red stop light" goes on if there is a substantial risk of human rights abuses. It argues that arms embargoes are often imposed only when the damage had been done.
Amnesty's Wood said 2012 was a crucial year for the treaty.
"2012 is make or break," he said.
"I think we will have a treaty. But the question is, will it be worth the paper it is written on," he said.