European Arms Manufacturers Pump Weapons into Troubled Regions

BRUSSELS, Feb 8 (IPS) - One of the most horrific incidents that followed Kenya's disputed presidential election was the burning to death of 30 people taking refuge in a church in Eldoret.

Located in the west of the country, Eldoret is also home to an ammunition factory opened in the mid-1990s by the Belgian company FN Herstal.

The plant has been blamed earlier for providing supplies to armed factions in the genocide that swept through Rwanda in 1994. Now Amnesty International has documented human rights violations by Kenyan forces using weapons manufactured at the same site.

The continued involvement of a firm from the European Union in Kenya comes despite a decade-old EU code of conduct on arms sales.

The code stipulates that licenses to export weapons cannot be issued if there is a threat they will be used for internal repression or in armed conflicts. But because the bullets in Eldoret are made outside the EU, they are not covered by the code.

Nor has the code put an end to sales of weapons to countries encountering political turmoil or civil strife. The EU's latest annual report on military exports shows that in 2006 licenses for arms sales to Israel exceeded 1 billion euros (1.4 billion dollars), despite the Union's professed concern over Israeli attacks on Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories that year.

And even though EU countries are officially obliged to observe an embargo on arms sales to Sudan -- because of the conflict in its western province of Darfur -- licences with a value of over 2 million euros were issued for that country in 2006.

France also agreed to the sale of 25 armored vehicles in 2007 to neighboring Chad, which is now gripped by fighting between rebel forces and those loyal to President Idriss Déby.

Another weakness identified by human rights campaigners is that the code of conduct is not legally binding.

The EU's governments agreed in 2005 to make compliance with it mandatory. Yet the formal steps needed to give effect to that decision have not yet been taken, largely due to the stance adopted by France. Paris has indicated it would only be prepared to agree to upgrade the code's legal status when an EU arms embargo on China, imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, is lifted.

Representatives of 28 countries will gather in New York Feb. 11-15 to consider a worldwide treaty on controlling the arms trade.

The EU has been vocal in its support for such a treaty. Human rights campaigners have welcomed this support but they say it would have greater moral and political weight if the Union could strengthen its own rules on arms sales.

"It (the EU position) is clearly embarrassing, and it looks to the outside world as inconsistent," says Amnesty's Ollie Sprague.

He argues, too, that the EU's code needs to be strengthened so that it can address situations where European firms make weapons outside the Union's borders or through joint ventures with firms in other countries.

"Globalisation has not escaped the arms trade; it is a factor of modern commerce," he told IPS. "The code of conduct won't work unless governments tackle the globalisation factors."

In December, the EU's executive, the European Commission, unveiled proposals designed to simplify procedures for issuing arms export licenses followed by national governments within the Union. According to Günter Verheugen, the European commissioner for industry, the proposals will enable greater cross-border cooperation between arms companies in the EU and enhance the competitiveness of the defense sector.

But Frank Slijper from the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade says that the Commission's blueprint could make it easier for European weapons to be sold to countries with an unenviable human rights record.

At present, Dutch companies making military components have to name the country where their goods will end up, even if they are selling those components on to another European firm that will later export them. Yet under the scheme advocated by the Commission, France would be listed as the country of destination if components are transferred from the Netherlands to a French company. The Dutch would no longer take account of the possibility that France could re-export the components.

"Generally speaking France has lower barriers on arms exports than the Dutch have," said Slijper. "We would lose a lot of control."

The Commission has been prepared to take greater account of arguments put forward by the defense industry than over human rights concerns, Slijper added. "The European NGO (non-governmental organization) network has a good voice," he said. "But to me, it seems way too weak to properly compete with the much stronger lobbying from the industry. A lot more needs to be done to get a proper counterbalance to a lobby that is more in favor of smooth markets and big trade volumes."

In May 2007, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant against Ahmad Muhammad Arun, Sudan's humanitarian affairs minister. He is accused of supplying G3 assault rifles to the Janjaweed, the militia that have caused wide scale suffering and death in Darfur.

Heckler and Koch manufacture these rifles. Founded in Germany following the Second World War, H&K was taken over by British Aerospace in the early 1990s.

"In Darfur, the German H&K rifle has been the main weapon," said Roman Deckert from the Berlin Information Centre for Transatlantic Security. "But nobody is really aware of that here."

"Officially, the (EU) code of conduct has been praised by European governments, but when it comes down to it, it has a lot of loopholes. Its implementation has been very weak." (END/2008)

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