Prague, 19 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- European Union (EU) Foreign Ministry officials have begun talks on a proposed code of conduct designed to curb the export of arms and security equipment to authoritarian regimes.
The issue is taking on renewed sensitivity amid rising tensions in the Middle East, where such equipment could be used for internal repression or external aggression. But, the code has not been well received by human rights and development agencies, who had hopes when Britain and France first jointly announced plans for the code last year.
The nongovernmental organizations now say they are skeptical about whether the proposed code of conduct will make much difference in practice. They say the code is riddled with loopholes and is license for what they call "business as usual."
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International is particularly concerned that the draft code contains no provisions for tightening controls to ensure that arms exported to one country are not then passed on to less acceptable regimes, or that civilian technology is not converted for military use.
Another perceived weakness, according to Amnesty, is the lack of any measures to control EU nationals' involvement in arms brokering.
In addition, Amnesty, along with British-based Human rights campaigners Oxfam, Saferworld and BASIC, have expressed dismay over Britain's failure to insist on an EU agreement that would outlaw the production of leg-irons, batons capable of delivering electric shocks and other weapons commonly used for torture.
The human rights campaigners say the code should stipulate that all EU countries report arms exports on a monthly basis and that any refusal should be circulated within ten days. They also say the entire EU should consult if one nation seeks to take up an arms deal rejected by another.
Meanwhile, criticism of the code is not just coming from the NGO's.
Earlier this week, Britain's most prominent former serviceman -- SAS Commander General Sir Michael Rose -- launched an attack on the British government for failing to control defense exports. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, General Rose warned of a potential "arms to Iraq" scandal. He also said that action in the Gulf could produce a "boomerang effect," with weapons sold irresponsibly to other nations being used against British troops.
Rose, who commanded United Nations forces in Bosnia from 1994 1995, speaks from experience. He said European troops have faced military equipment supplied by their own governments for peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda. Rose also told the Daily Telegraph that in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Allied forces faced a heavily-armed Iraqi military supplied through the export of arms and equipment from the European Union in the 1980's.
The British Foreign office has yet to comment officially on the matter. But a European Union (EU) diplomat, speaking on background to RFE/RL, said it was too early in the debate for alarm. He said those who are raising criticisms at this stage, may fully support the document in its final form, once it has gone through debate and revisions. He said final passage would be subject to ministerial review, with expected signing around June.
The EU diplomat, also on background, said the reported cornerstone of the draft discussed by officials at the opening session (Feb. 17) of talks in Brussels is a commitment not to supply material for which another EU-member state has refused an export license, without first consulting the rejecting EU-member state. The requirement will apply for three years from the initial denial of the license. But the diplomat acknowledged that the preamble to the proposed code makes it clear EU countries will remain free to undercut each other, or go ahead with such granting of licenses and sales, if they believe it is in their economic or political interest to do so.
Asked to characterize the opening session, the diplomat said the code received strong support. However, he said some EU-member states stressed the newness of the initiative and sought to ensure that the code of conduct would not undermine national sovereignty, but would allow such decisions to remain solely in the hands of national authorities.