Bram Vranken, Vredesactie
In the coming years, the European Union will spend billions of euros on the research and development of military equipment through the European Defence Fund. This poses fundamental ethical, legal and societal questions. Despite the issues at stake, the EU military research programmme not only excels in opacity, but it also neglects international law.
The EU military research agenda is controversial to say the least. Its research has focused on drones, swarm systems and artificial intelligence. Weapon systems with a high amount of autonomy of which the extent of human control is not always clear. Among its main projects are the EuroDrone and iMugs, a project for the development of unmanned ‘tanks’.
Over the last couple of years the European Defence Fund has been subject of criticism because of the lack of transparency, undue influence from the defence sector and the controversial nature of research projects. Now it seems that even ethical and legal questions are not being properly addressed.
Commercial interests of the arms industry more important than transparency
In April 2019 the Belgian peace organisation Vredesactie filed a freedom of information request asking the European Defence Agency to publish the so-called ethics, legal and societal assessments (ELSA) of selected military research projects under this Fund.
The EDA initially refused to publish any documents as these might damage ‘the commercial interests’ of the participating companies. Questions about the consequences of weapons research on human rights were apparently less important than the commercial interests of the arms industry.
It was only after a complaint with the European Ombudsman that the EDA was forced to make the ELSA reviews publicly available. In its recommendations the Ombudsman hinted at the controversial nature of these military research projects and the potential risks these projects pose to fundamental rights: “Given the possible ethical, legal and societal implications of the funded projects, it is also important to assure the public that these aspects are examined carefully, and that necessary safeguards are put in place, most notably, to ensure that no fundamental rights are violated.”
EU acts in violation with its international obligations
Shortly after the recommendations made by the Ombudsman, the EDA published 45 documents related to the ELSA reviews of seven military research projects, which received a total of 50 million euros of European funding. The documents show first that the reviews lack a systematic assessment of any of the legal or societal risks specifically related to weapons research beyond the privacy of participants or environnmental impact, making them largely a pointless exercise.
Second, the EDA failed to comply with its international obligations. The 1949 Geneva Convention obligates states to review if the research, development or usage of new weapons weapons by a state are in compliance with international law. The published documents show that these so-called Article 36 reviews are not part of the ELSA reviews. In other words, the EDA is acting in violation with one of the pillars of international law, the Geneva conventions.
The cynicism of the European Commission is even more stunning. Where the European Defence Agency tries to at least keep up appearances, the Commission doesn’t even carry out any ethical reviews for its military development projects. While the Commission claims to check the compliance of military projects with international law, it seems that it is definitely not its highest priority. When Vredesactie asked the Commission to shed more light on how it is exactly checking if EU military research projects are in compliance with international law, the Commission refused and carelessly responded that “only a very limited part of [the requested] documents relates to the aspect of compliance of the proposals with international law”. It seems that the main criteria are self-assessements by the companies submitting a project.
While spending hundreds of million of euros of taxpayers money on developing new weapons is already highly unethical in the first place, now it seems the EU is also disregarding international law in setting up these projects. Once the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize. Now it seems that pleasing the arms industry is a more important priority.
Bram Vranken is researcher and campaigner with the Belgian peace organisation Vredesactie.