Arms exports: a subject of debate in the European Union

The control of arms exports is highly technical, often controversial – and very interesting. This was proved at a conference this week which was hosted by the European External Action Service of the European Union (EU) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the field of arms control. I listened to many interesting discussions and thought-provoking presentations, but there were three issues which I found most intriguing. I’ll discuss these here in turn.

The event was organised by the European External Action Service, and brought together the Council Working Group on Conventional Arms (COARM) and NGOs working in non-proliferation and arms control.

The event was organised by the European External Action Service, and brought together the Council Working Group on Conventional Arms (COARM) and NGOs working in non-proliferation and arms control. Credit: C Venables

Issue no. 1: ‘Lowest minimum standard’ or ‘robust and effective controls’?

The first issue concerns the European Union’s current legislation in this area and how it is interpreted. In 2008, the Council of the European Union adopted a Common Position (2008/944/CFSP) on arms export control. It contains a legally binding set of criteria which EU Member States must use when issuing export licenses for military technology. These criteria state that Member States must not contravene international humanitarian law, and, perhaps more importantly, the criteria create obligations to ensure exported arms won’t be used in internal repression or human rights abuses. Civil servants from the Member States, whose job it is to assess exports against these criteria on a day-to-day basis, asserted that the criteria do not need changing; that they are fit for purpose. Representatives from civil society were less enthusiastic and highlighted a number of cases in which the system had failed, despite being implemented correctly.

Tahrir Square, Egypt: European states exported weapons to North Africa and the Middle East before and possibly even during the pro-democracy protests of the 'Arab Spring'.

Tahrir Square, Egypt: European countries exported arms to North Africa and the Middle East before and possibly even during the pro-democracy protests of the ‘Arab Spring’. Credit: Lilian Wagdy (CC BY 2.0)

These two divergent views are in fact both valid and provide insight in to the arms export controls of the member states. The disagreement suggests a difference in the way the responsibility of exporting states to ensure military goods do not end up in the hands of human rights abusers is understood. How far must governments go to protect those in other countries from the negative effects of their arms exports? Do governments currently complete a sufficiently thorough analysis to ensure that a particular export is not used in human rights abuses?  The recent use of European arms in suppressing protests in the Middle East and North Africa suggests not. But, answering this question comprehensively would require transparency within the system to allow outside scrutiny – not something governments are always happy to do. For now, perhaps the criteria need to be treated as the lowest minimum standards, not, as they are often interpreted, as a “gold-standard” for which governments should strive but need not always meet.

Issue no. 2: Are we all neo-imperialists?

This leads on to the second issue, which concerns criterion eight of the EU Common Position. It reads:

“Member States shall take into account… whether the proposed export would seriously hamper the sustainable development of the recipient country.”

The International Monetary Fund (pictured) is often criticised for loan conditionality. Should developed states deny exports due to lack of development? (Image in Public Domain)

The International Monetary Fund (pictured) is often criticised for loan conditionality. Should industrialised states deny exports to the Third World due to lack of progress and development? (Image in Public Domain)

There was considerable discussion both during the sessions (and in the coffee breaks!) on what implications this criterion had. It was criticised as being patronising and even neo-imperialist: why should exporting states have a say in how developing countries spend their money? This marks another area of tension, but it occurred to me that many relationships between the global North and South operate in this way. It is standard practice in the international financial institutions to give loans and grants on the condition of economic reform, for example.

Issue no. 3: The Arms Trade Treaty

It was no surprise that much of the day was devoted to the Arms Trade Treaty, and these discussions provoked more thoughts. The negotiations to create global legally binding criteria on the transfer of arms ended at the UN in July without consensus. On the final day of negotiations, the United States and Russia derailed the efforts of many countries, stating that they needed more time to discuss the proposals. The discussions were not fruitless, however, as a draft treaty had been created, and this text will form the basis of the second round of negotiations next March.

There is concern that the proposed ATT will not included ammunition. Credit: Todd Huffman (CC BY 2.0)

There is concern that the proposed Arms Trade Treaty will not cover the transfer of ammunition. Credit: Todd Huffman (CC BY 2.0)

But it is not yet clear what the Arms Trade Treaty will actually do in practice. This is due in no small part to the fact that the current draft contains many loopholes and ambiguities. There are concerns about ammunition being excluded, the status of ‘Defence Cooperation Agreements’, and how far International Humanitarian Law will be integrated. Will the final text end up being no more than a legitimisation of the arms trade? One can imagine harmful and destabilising arms deals being defended because they conform to the standards of the treaty. This prospect is worrying. There is time between now and March for some of these problems to be worked out and there are many people across the EU, both in government and in civil society, who are working hard to create a robust treaty. This would hopefully make some progress towards stopping the damage currently caused by the international transfer of arms.

As I indicated at the start, these are informal thoughts and questions rather than QCEA policy work, but I hope you find them interesting. We do not work actively on arms control, but these issues are relevant and topical, and thus demand our collective attention.

For detailed information on the implementation of the EU Common Position, see this research project by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The European External Action Service has a lot of information too, and publishes an annual report on EU arms exports. For a detailed survey of how EU arms exports were involved in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa see this report funded by Oxfam GB, Amnesty UK, and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

For information on the broader issues surrounding the international arms trade, see Campaign Against Arms Trade in the UK, Campagne Tegen Wapenhandel in the Netherlands, and the European Network Against Arms Trade for other European countries.

The Arms Trade Treaty is supported by a coalition of NGOs called ‘Control Arms’. Their website has loads of interesting and informative resources. lists the negotiating positions of all states, so check to see what your government is doing there. The Flemish Peace Institute published a research paper a number of days ago detailing the role of the EU in the ATT negotiations, it makes for interesting reading.

UPDATE (03/01/2012): Elizabeth Kirkham of Saferworld has produced a great briefing paper on where the ATT currently stands. Well worth a read.

If you are interested in these issues and would like more information, please do not hesitate to get in touch: cvenables [at]

About Chris Venables

Chris was a Programme Assistant at the Quaker Council for European Affairs from September 2012 to September 2013. He researched and wrote on the militarisation of the European Union.
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