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Arms for Autocrats: It's Time for the EU to Bite the Bullet

Despite the EU's vow to support human rights and democracy in Africa, it continues to sell billions of dollars worth of arms to authoritarian regimes each year.
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Protesters in Egypt clash with the military and police in 2011. Photograph by Aslan Media.

This April, European leaders will sit down with their African counterparts at the fourth EU-Africa summit. The summits were originally established in 2000 to build a stronger relationship between Europe and Africa based on the principles of long-term cooperation, ownership, partnership and solidarity. But unfortunately, these ideals ideal often stand at odds with the policies actually being pursued by EU member-states.

In 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, offered an apology for the institution's historical support for North African dictators. “We must show humility about the past," he said. "Europe was not vocal enough in defending human rights and local democratic forces in the region."

He built on this by adding, “The crowds in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere have been fighting in the name of our shared values. It is with them, and for them, that we must work today − not with dictators.”

Three years later, there is little evidence this has happened.

Arms for autocrats

Egypt is a case in point. Both before and after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, the country has received little practical support from Europe. Even EU auditors themselves have described European strategy as “well-intentioned but ineffective” and written off the main human rights programme as "largely unsuccessful."

Furthermore, as the EU's support for Egyptian governance has faltered, arms exports have done anything but. The latest EU report shows that the same countries failing to adequately support Egyptian citizens licensed a record €363 million ($500 million) of arms sales to the government in 2012, up from €300 ($410 million) in 2011 and €200 ($270 million) in 2010.

Meanwhile, Algeria − a repressive state in which freedoms of assembly, speech and association are curtailed − received almost €750 million ($1 billion) worth of arms in 2012. Chad − which has been ranked as being one of the world's most corrupt nations and politically "not free" − received €95 million ($130 million). And Madagascar − which had experience a coup just 3 years previously − received nearly €25 million ($35 million). In fact, of the 51 authoritarian governments listed in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2012, European states awarded licences for military sales to 43 of them.

However, the EU's arms sales to authoritarian states have not just been inconsistent with its commitment to promoting democracy − they have also been short-sighted.

In 2004, when the EU arms embargo on Libya was lifted, for example, member-states quickly began courting Muammar Gaddafi for arms sales. These new commercial interests muted Europe's criticism of the regime and ensured that pro-democracy activists would continue to have to campaign in an environment characterised by violence, intimidation and repression. This policy of prioritising arms sales and commercial profits over the promotion of human rights continued right up until the Libyan uprising of 2011 in which Gaddafi used European arms against Libyan citizens.

The sale of vast quantities of weapons to African countries is at odds with the EU's vow to support human rights and democracy and with the Joint Africa-EU strategy. As well as facilitating human rights abuses and conflict, arms deals can raise political tensions, undermine attempts to address common problems, and destabilise the establishment of peaceful long-term solutions. On top of that, the fact that EU governments are willing to lend their political and military support to these authoritarian regimes gives them a significant moral boost and increases their international support and legitimacy.

Time to bite the bullet

Fortunately, there have been some steps in the right direction recently. Last year, due to the level of violence taking place, the EU banned the export of arms and the sending of mercenaries to the Central African Republic. But if the EU is to genuinely promote the values of long-term cooperation, ownership, partnership and solidarity with Africa then it must build on this by suspending all arms exports to all authoritarian or unstable countries in the region and ensure that the needs of citizens, not arms companies, are central to its political strategy.

Only by ending the kind of political and military support that is strengthening oppressive regimes can the EU play its part in ensuring that by the time of the 5th EU-Africa summit the outlook for human rights and the prospects of citizens is stronger than it is today.

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