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
As Egypt marks the third anniversary of the Arab Spring, the situation is still unstable. Forty-nine people were killed at protests to mark the anniversary, which comes at the same time as one former president goes on trial and a new one is to be elected.
With this backdrop you would expect that the powers of Europe would be supporting the Egyptian people and promoting democratic reform in the region. Unfortunately you would be wrong. The latest European Union (EU) arms exports report, which includes figures for 2012, shows that EU countries added to the instability by licensing a record €363,212,688 ($492 million) of sales to the Egyptian government, including €16 million ($21.6 million) in ‘weapon firing equipment’, €28 million ($38 million) in ‘exploding devices’ and €46 million ($62 million) in ‘military vehicles’.
Unfortunately, Egypt was not the only unstable country to see significant licences. Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were also major customers, buying over $3 billion and $2 billion worth of arms respectively. In fact, of the 51 authoritarian governments listed in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2012, licences were awarded for military sales to 43 of them. Overall, a record $13 billion in arms licences were issued to the Middle East, representing a staggering 22 per cent increase.
The EU is meant to be underpinned by a commitment to human rights and democracy, and this needs to be central to its foreign policy. 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 the member states courted Qadafi for arms sales. In 2010 alone EU states licensed $484 million worth of arms exports, including ‘weapon firing equipment’, ‘ammunition’ and ‘explosive devices’. This policy continued right up until the Arab Spring, when Qadafi used European exports against pro-democracy campaigners. Following Qadafi’s fall, sales to Libya continued, with almost $30 million of military export licences having since been approved.
Of course, EU member states are far from the only countries to do this. In fact, lots of countries export all sorts of weapons to oppressive governments. 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 legitimacy to dictatorships and human rights abusers.
Earlier this 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 sets an important precedent which Europe should be following. Rather than providing a fig-leave of respectability for tyrants, EU member states should be leading the way in calling for an immediate end to arms exports to all countries that abuse human rights.
The Arab Spring should have seen a re-appraisal of how Europe does business with these countries, but the change has been negligible. In its recent report, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said: ‘Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government’. This statement alone gives two perfectly good reasons to oppose the role of EU states in the global arms trade.
This is a European Parliamentary election year and it’s important for human rights to be central to the debate about Europe’s future. Campaigners are urging all MEPs and candidates to show their commitment to peace, security and human rights and ensuring that the arms trade and this specific report are discussed in the European Parliament. It cannot be allowed to just be business as usual for European governments and their inherently contradictory and hypocritical foreign policies – in which the human rights of civilians all too often play second fiddle to the short-term profits of the arms companies.