The EU’s arms traders are ignoring human rights for short-term profits

Andrew Smith looks at the hypocrisy of European arms sales to the Middle East and Africa

March 25, 2014 · 5 min read

‘Not only the protection of human rights, but also the promotion of peace and European values are the reason for the very existence of the European Union.’ Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council

The publication of the latest EU arms export data shows that, despite wider economic conditions, the European arms trade is growing. France, Spain and Germany are the largest exporters, leading the way in an industry that arms and legitimates oppressive governments and shows little concern or regard for human rights or democracy.

The report revealed that in 2012 alone, EU countries’ licensed arms exports were valued at almost €40 billion. This included a record €9.7 billion in licensed sales to the Middle East, which was an increase of 22 per cent since 2011. The increasing sales have come despite the human rights abuses, and show that events in Africa and the Middle East have done little to change export policy. The EU is meant to be underpinned by a commitment to human rights and democracy, and this needs to be central to its exports and foreign policy. When EU countries sell weapons to oppressive regimes they share the responsibility for what is done with those weapons and who is those killed by them.

Fueling instability

An example of this is Egypt, where, three years on from the uprising, the situation is still unstable. 49 people were killed at protests to mark the anniversary, and more than 500 people have just been sentenced to death. With this backdrop you would expect the powers of Europe to be supporting the Egyptian people and those promoting democratic reform in the region. Unfortunately you would be wrong. EU countries have added to the instability, and in 2012 they licensed a record €363 million of sales to the Egyptian government, including €17 million in ‘weapon firing equipment’, €28 million in ‘exploding devices’ and €46 million in ‘military vehicles’.

The situation in Egypt is not unique. The authoritarian government in Saudi Arabia was the single biggest customer for EU arms sales, and obtained licences for over €3.5 billion. The dictatorships in Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were also major customers and bought over €2.2 billion and €1.5 billion worth of licences in 2012. In fact, of the 51 authoritarian governments that were listed in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2012, licences were awarded for military sales to 43 of them.

However, the policies of member states haven’t just been unethical, they have also been extremely short-sighted. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Libya. In 2004 the EU arms embargo on Libya was lifted and almost immediately member states courted Gaddafi for arms sales. In 2010 alone EU states licensed £294 million worth of arms exports, including ‘weapon firing equipment’, ‘ammunition’ and ‘explosive devices’. This policy continued right up until Gaddafi used European exports against pro-democracy campaigners. Following Gaddafi’s fall, sales to Libya have continued, with almost €22 million of military export licenses having since been approved. Most of this was down to one specific aircraft deal, but it makes clear the intention for sales to continue. In fact UK export figures for the third quarter of 2013 show that in the 12 preceding months the UK has licensed £29 million in military sales to Libya.

A signal of support

Of course EU member states are not the only countries to sell arms to these countries. However, as we are always being told, Europe has a major global influence and should be using it to promote freedom and democracy instead of providing an extra layer of legitimacy to dictatorships and human rights abusers. Another example of the impact of this came in the recent report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Bahrain, which said: ‘Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government.’

Instead of promoting these practices, EU leaders should work towards foreign policies that are based on the core values of peace, democracy and human rights. Last year, due to the sectarian violence taking place, the EU banned the export of arms and the sending of mercenaries to the Central African Republic. There needs to be a greater consistency in export policy and Campaign Against Arms Trade is calling on member states to build on this important precedent by suspending all arms exports to authoritarian or unstable countries.

There is an internal debate taking place in Germany about the wisdom and morality of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as the government is trying to secure a major defence deal with the regime by offering Hermes export credit guarantees. In a recent interview Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD opposition party said he would deal ‘restrictively’ with weapons exports in the future and that he didn’t want to deliver repressive instruments to authoritarian regimes. This would mark a significant change in policy for a nation that exported over €1.2 billion to the Saudis in 2012 alone.

Last month DAPA, the South Korean export agency, announced that, following an international campaign supported by Campaign Against Arms Trade, they would cancel a shipment of 1.6 million gas canisters to Bahrain. This summer presents an opportunity to build on that success and push for greater change. As the European Parliamentary elections approach, it’s vital that human rights are central to the debate about Europe’s future. Campaigners are urging all MEPs and candidates to show their commitment to peace, democracy and human rights by ensuring that the arms trade and this specific report is discussed in the European Parliament. It cannot be allowed to be business as usual for European governments and their inherently contradictory and hypocritical foreign policy, in which the human rights of civilians play second fiddle to the short-term profits of arms companies.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade ( and tweets at @wwwcaatorguk.

A very real culture war

Russia's deliberate targeting of Ukraine's museums follows a pattern of imperial powers looting and despoiling cultural wealth, argues Siobhan McGuirk

Zvenigora: Looking back at a Ukrainian cinema marvel

The current war in Ukraine gives a new significance to the work of the Soviet-era Ukrainian film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko, writes Juliet Jacques

A woman and a man pushing a bicycle laden with bags in front of bombed blocks of flats

Ukraine and anti-imperialism: thoughts for the British left

David Wearing discusses the geopolitical interests at stake and how the left in Britain can meaningfully engage in anti-imperialist struggle today

The growing threat of French fascism: Where next for the left?

Le Pen's vote is now more geographically spread than ever before. An insular left needs to look beyond itself to respond, reports Selma Oumari

Hungary’s illiberal education

Victor Orbán’s far-right government in Hungary sees higher education as critical to the consolidation of the ruling Fidesz party’s grip on society. Dorit Geva reports

Why we need to unite for peace and human rights across the old divides

Dmitri Makarov and Mary Kaldor call for solidarity and dialogue between anti-war movements across the divides of the Cold War

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...