European Union Adopts Code of Conduct on Arms Sales

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ON MAY 25, European Union (EU) foreign ministers at a General Affairs Council meeting approved an arms sales code of conduct that lists eight criteria (see text box) to guide EU members in arms exports and requires consultations between members when one pursues a weapons deal that another had previously denied. While aiming to promote "high common standards" for arms exports, the code is not legally binding and the final export decision remains one of national discretion.

According to the latest World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers (1996) report by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Western European states conducted 30 percent of world arm sales in 1995, of which Britain (54 percent), France (23 percent) and Germany (12 percent) accounted for 89 percent. Scandinavian countries and other EU members with relatively few arms exports pressed for code provisions stronger than some countries, particularly France, were willing to accept. Because the EU operates by consensus, the 15 countries adopted a weaker code than most members wanted as many of the issues considered were reportedly contested 14-1. Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs David Andrews on May 26 said he was "disappointed" in the human rights criterion, but viewed the adopted code as "preferable to no step at all."

The code, whose formal adoption is expected in early June, declares an export should not be made if it might be used for internal repression, but EU members are only to "exercise special caution and vigilance" where "serious violations" of human rights have been declared by the EU, the Council of Europe or the United Nations. Moreover, members only need to "take into account" an importing state's attitude toward terrorism or commitment to nonproliferation.

Unlike the proposed U.S. code of conduct, which has yet to be passed by Congress (see ACT, March 1998), the EU code does not call for an arms buyer to be a democracy or to have civilian control over the military. But the code does obligate members to consider a buyer's "relative levels of military and social expenditure. …