With Our Arms Wide Open

By Kaye Stearman15.03.2011Global Policy

EU arms exports to the Middle East have been skyrocketing in recent years, although economic arguments go against it. Despite the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, countries like Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt and Libya are all armed with EU weaponry, showing that Europe places business interests over international human rights standards.

When the European Union released its XII Report on control of exports of military technology and equipment on 13 January it received no media attention. The suppression of peaceful protesters with weapons supplied by EU states exposed the reality behind the 400-pages of data. EU arms exports to the Middle East had soared from €4.9 billion in 2008 to €9.6 billion in 2009. Exports to North Africa had doubled from €985 million to €2 billion.

What are the benefits?

While national governments use political and military arguments to support an arms industry, they also use economic justifications, arguing that arms exports support manufacturing, provide skilled jobs and valuable foreign exchange. However, the real economic arguments go against arms exports. Take the UK as an example. Employment in the capital-intensive arms industry has dropped dramatically since the end of the Cold War and continues to fall. Arms giant BAE Systems shed 9,000 jobs in 2010 with more to follow (BAE, a global company, employs more staff in the US than in the UK). Arms export jobs comprise a mere 0.2% of the UK workforce. Arms exports are less than 1.5% of total UK exports. A much-lauded £700 million deal to sell Hawk jets to India in July 2010 will see the jets manufactured under licence in India and will “protect” just 200 UK jobs. This is an increasing trend as emerging markets aim to build indigenous manufacture. The engineering and scientific skills of arms export workers are in high demand elsewhere. In September 2009, the President of General Dynamics UK told a Parliamentary committee “… the skills that might be divested of a reducing defence industry do not just sit there waiting to come back. They will be mopped up by other industries that need such skills.” What he doesn’t say is that these industries, such as renewable energy, are more ethical and socially productive. UK arms exports are subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of around £9,000 per job. Subsidies come through government-sponsored insurance via the Export Credits Guarantee Department, government sponsored Research & Development and generous procurement contracts that support export promotion. UK Trade & Investment has a separate Defence & Security Organization which promotes arms exports, including organising UK participation in arms fairs worldwide. It has more staff at London HQ than the other industry sectors combined.

Most EU governments are keen to export weapons

EU countries have rules and guidelines governing arms exports. They have signed up to the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, which is politically, although not legally, binding. The Code has common standards based on eight criteria, including human rights and regional stability, and reporting requirements. However, since the Code is subject to broad and varied interpretation, and most EU governments are keen to export weapons, licences are granted to countries who, by any normal standards, contravene the criteria. Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, all armed with EU weaponry, are the logical conclusion of placing business interests over international human rights standards. Campaign Against Arms Trade urges an immediate arms embargo on the whole region and a commitment by EU government to meaningfully implement the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports.

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