EU Member States downplaying rules on arms exports

Brussels/Amsterdam 23 November 2010

A network of NGOs has published a list of questionable arms export practices by EU states, including corruption, arms sales to human rights abusers and exports that fuel conflict in the developing world.

EU States pride themselves on taking the global lead in controlling the trade in conventional weapons, but new evidence suggests they are failing to live up to the obligations set by their own agreed rules.  These rules state that governments must refuse to allow the export of military equipment where it might contribute to human rights violations or breaches of international humanitarian law, or undermine peace and security or sustainable development.

The research suggests that some EU states are downplaying EU rules and national laws when they believe there is economic or political advantage to be gained from large arms deals. There would also appear to be a worrying lack of consensus amongst EU States as regards what actually constitutes a responsible arms transfer.  For example:

The Czech Republic, Slovakia and the UK all sold arms to Sri Lanka in the period leading up to the 2009 war against the Tamil Tigers despite the risks that such transfers would fuel the conflict.
EU member states are known to have licensed the transfer of small arms countries in Latin America which were subsequently diverted to non-state armed groups involved in the Colombian conflict.  This occurred  despite the fact that rigorous application of the EU Code of Conduct prohibits transfers where there is a clear risk of diversion.

Concern is also expressed at the involvement of EU-based shipping companies in the transportation of tanks from the Ukraine to Kenya despite the fact that at least one EU member state (Germany) was aware that this military equipment was ultimately destined for  embargoed South Sudan.

These and other examples of questionable practice can be found in a major new report by EU NGOs, edited and published by An Vranckx of the University of Gent in Belgium, Rhetoric or restraint: Trade in military equipment under the EU transfer control system.

“The EU probably has the best rules in the world to prevent arms ending up in the wrong hands,” said the report’s editor, An Vranckx, “But what’s the use in having all these rules if they are ignored when giant economic incentives to export are on the table, or when the powers-that-be decide ‘good state relations’ are more important than preventing small arms proliferation, conflict, human rights abuses and poverty”

Frank Slijper, one of the authors of the report, said: “EU arms transfer policy is being undermined by some states deciding it’s OK to sell when others are opposed.  The EU has to seriously raise its game: lives and livelihoods are being put at risk because the EU is not living up to its obligation to exercise responsible control over the arms trade.”