Defending Rights While Dealing Arms

Article excerpt

Europe's arms trade to many nations is at odds with the Union's commitment to human rights, several reports show.

When the Arab Spring swept across much of North Africa and the Middle East last year, it exposed European policies toward the region.

Many E.U. countries had been exporting weapons to dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, often with scant regard to whether the arms were used for quashing dissent and propping up the status quo.

Shamed by their support for these regimes, the Arab Spring has given Europe a chance to start fresh -- not only with that region but also with how it does business with dictatorships in Central Asia.

But two new reports, one by the European Union and the other by Sipri, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, show that European companies and governments are seeking markets for their weapons outside Europe more eagerly than ever.

Not all these markets are in stable, conflict-free, democratic countries. This raises the question of how Europe can square its commitment to defending human rights with selling weapons to such countries.

"European governments have sold weapons to bad guys for a long time," Bates Gill, director of Sipri, said in an interview. "There are plenty of examples for that in spite of the high-sounding principled language about monitoring arms sales."

On one level, this is hardly surprising. Defense spending is declining among most E.U. countries as governments cut budgets.

And with the need to protect jobs, governments and arms producers seek new markets.

Security experts say that the Middle East region and further afield in Central Asia will remain a lucrative market for European arms companies. Indeed, Sipri suggests as much in its annual report, published last week, in which it listed the 100 top arms companies by sales.

The list is not exhaustive. It excludes companies from China, Ukraine and Kazakhstan because of the unreliability of their statistics. Highly successful German arms producers, too small to make the top 100, are also excluded.

Nevertheless, the report is revealing for several reasons. It shows how the arms trade is thriving, despite the global financial crisis and the economic downturn across most of Europe. Sales of arms and military services increased to $411.1 billion in 2010 -- a 1 percent increase compared with 2009 and a 60 percent increase since 2002.

The United States and Europe continue to dominate the arms- producing and military-services companies. Forty-four U.S. companies accounted for more than 60 percent of all arms sales listed by Sipri. The 30 European companies on the list account for 29 percent of total sales, or about $119 billion. …