Projects to develop new weaponry profit main arms exporters and are not properly “ethically-assessed”

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In 2014, the EU co-legislators (Council and Parliament) adopted a pilot project for military research worth €1.5 million. In the following years the budget dedicated to military research and development (R&D) increased exponentially: from half a billion Euro in 2017-2019, to most probably €8 billion as of next year (covering 2021-2027). It would be an understatement to say that the vote in 2014 opened Pandora’s box: it goes against the vision of the EU’s founding fathers to control and constrain the production of war material and, even more so, to provide more space and financial means to the arms industry.

After years of trying to stop this funding from happening in the first place, peace groups like ENAAT are now left with the sad role of trying to monitor how this money is being used and to warn about the risks such funding entails.

The first obstacle we face in this watchdog role is the severe lack of transparency. The European Defence Agency (EDA) had started off alright by publicising the detailed breakdown of all the beneficiaries of the first seven projects selected under the 2017 budget.

This led to interesting findings. For example: seven out of the eight companies that had advised the European Commission to create this funding were receiving 41% of the budget allocated through those projects. No matter if this is a coincidence or not, for none of the following projects run by the EDA, nor for the most recent ones selected by the European Commission in 2019 was such a level of detailed information provided again.

Yet we know enough about the beneficiaries of 32 out of the 34 R&D projects currently funded or selected, to draw several conclusions (see recent ENAAT publication):

Four countries get 53.5% of the grants allocated (in number of grants): France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Although this is not a big surprise, it is worth remembering that these countries are also the biggest arms exporters in the EU. One of the main risks of this EU funding which, let us not forget, is mainly an industry-driven programme led by the Commissioner in charge of the internal market and the Defence Industry, is precisely contributing to exacerbate the on-going global arms race, which in turn feeds conflicts.

Another major reason for concern is the type of technologies being developed without any credible ethical assessment. One of the main objectives of the programme is to provide the EU with a ‘technological advantage’ as regards disruptive technologies “that will radically change the way to conduct war”. Examples for such technologies are unmanned systems (drone swarms, unmanned tanks), increased automation through AI, and other technologies like hypersonic weapons or directed energy weapons (microwaves or lasers for example).

Even though many of those technologies have not been used on battlefields yet, many researchers are concerned: One can anticipate serious risks, ranging from extrajudicial killings to civilian casualties and human rights abuses, resurgence of large-scale attacks and proliferation, lack of proper human control over increasingly complex and fast systems, and challenged legal responsibility, to name but a few.

Adding to this, months of work by ENAAT and Vredesactie through different means (parliamentary questions, letters, Freedom of Information requests, and a complaint to the Ombudsman) give a quite worrying picture of the “ethical assessments of military R&D projects funded by the EU.

After a decision of the European Ombudsman, the EDA eventually released the Ethical, Legal and Societal (ELSA) reviews of seven projects selected under the research funding. Analyses of the latter showed that those reviews fall short of being credible and are not in accordance with international obligations. The ethical aspect of these reviews mainly focused on the privacy of human participants and the impact on the environment, while no mention was made at all of International or human rights law, nor of major arms export control treaties.

This is a contradiction to art.36 of the Geneva Convention (Protocol I) which says:

“In the study, development, acquisition or adoption of a new weapon, means or method of warfare” states are under “an obligation to determine whether its employment would, in some or all circumstances, be prohibited by this Protocol or by any other rule of international law”.

This includes that if there is no relevant treaty or customary law, states must examine whether the weapon under research “contravenes the principles of humanity” or “the dictates of the public conscience”, according to the ICRC guide. Moreover, such review has to be carried out by an impartial reviewing body with a wide range of expertise and viewpoints.

At best, the situation is extremely confusing and contradicting when it comes to development projects managed by the Commission’s Directorate-General DEFIS (Defence Industry and Space):
The Commission first claimed that no ethical reviews were foreseen for the military development programme, but that no funding would be provided to technologies prohibited under International law -ignoring that obligations under International law are much wider than that.

It then took six months and two letters for DG DEFIS to appear more aware of those international obligations and claim that they do conduct such ethical assessments. However, at the time they refused to give even partial access to documents relating to them. Very recently Mr Alain Alexis, acting director at DEFIS, said to euro-parliamentarians that ethical assessments were conducted internally by a group of engineering experts on … defence. We are quite far away from an impartial body (the Commission being judge and party that the programme is a success for the arms industry) with a wide range of expertise and viewpoints!

For all these reasons and for giving peace a chance, it is and will be very important that this EU funding for the development of dangerous weaponry is continuously challenged at both the European and national level!

Laëtitia Sédou, Project officer, ENAAT ‘military research’ project

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