Soldiers (Image by Daniel Hadman)

Licensing to Kill?

Human Rights and Wrongs

Turkey hasn’t always gotten this special treatment, however. In 1995, after the invasion of Northern Iraq, Norway imposed a moratorium on arms exports to the country, and demanded, as a requirement for resuming deliveries, that Turkey clean up its human rights record.

This was before the EU Code of Conduct and human rights are not, nor were they then, mentioned in Norwegian legislation as a consideration when making licensing decisions. Yet, according to the Press Officer Karsten Klepsvik at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, countries’ human rights records are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In 1999 arms deliveries to Turkey were continued, but it is uncertain whether this meant that the Foreign Ministry was satisfied with Turkey’s improvements.

Whether it was political obligation, improvement of the circumstances in Kurdistan or other factors that made the government change its stance, the complexity of the issue is well illustrated by the fact that Klepsvik was unable to find an answer to the question in almost three days.

“[Human rights] is the least well-developed issue of them all,” Anthony laments, “because it’s such a new issue. It didn’t enter the debate until about five years ago.”

Anthony explains that export control systems were initially developed as a tool to deal with international security issues. When science gave us weapons of mass destruction and the cold war gave us a constant threat, having an increasingly sophisticated system of control was an absolute necessity. Even though the systems were not developed to have an impact on human rights, it became clear after a while that they had some influence over the internal situation in certain countries too, and only recently have they been used as a tool in this new context.

“You can see decisions by the EU to pass restrictive trade measures,” Anthony says. “Not only on military equipment, but also on various goods intended for civilian use; like for example police equipment and surveillance equipment that can be used by intelligence agencies to monitor citizens. These controls are gradually coming about, and are having an effect on internal security.”

Since this is such a new way of dealing with an old problem, however, there are still some details to work out. Like those slippery interpretations again.

“The problem is how to interpret these new policies,” Anthony says. “ If you have a spectrum across Europe, Sweden is very much on the restrictive end. But the UK would be quite likely to license police exports that would not be allowed out of Sweden.”

Anthony points out that this is not just a matter of interpretation, but also of weighing the effects of an embargo against those of keeping certain ties.

“Nobody knows the impact if you make the decision not to license an export,” he points out, reminding about the novelty of this aspect of export controls. “If you do, you probably cut your contacts with the police in that country. The UK, for instance, might argue that good contact is more important, because you may have some influence on how they behave.”

Marsh focuses on another aspect that needs to be worked on. The international political opinion has so far largely ignored either the problem or the possibilities of export controls as a means to solving it.

“It’s not very nice to admit it,” Marsh says, “but it’s not seen as a particularly bad international offence to sell arms that will be used to commit human rights abuses.”

He calls for some international initiative, some loud criticism, to make a significant number of states come together and create a “moral benchmark.” He uses the example of how the western countries dealt with illicit arms transfers from Central European countries.

“Slovakia, for example, had very bad records,” March says, “and Bulgarian weapons showed up everywhere. The EU and NATO stated very clearly that these countries would have to improve their records if they wanted to be considered for membership. They might not have been 100% successful, but it had a positive effect.”

If countries’ attitudes to this sort of international policing problems have consequences, he says – if failure to reach for the moral benchmark means diminished acceptance and influence on the international arena – then he thinks the results would follow.

This is an area where the EU feels it has something to contribute, and Anthony acknowledges that the European Union has been somewhat of a pioneer in linking human rights with export controls, but nobody pretends that the job is done yet. Despite the workload ahead, however, EU’s Tanca, who works with the EU Code of Conduct daily, doesn’t hesitate in pointing out the successes already accomplished.

“The situation as it was played into the hands of those who wanted zero transparency,” he says. “Now it plays into the others’ hands, those who want transparency and accountability.”

In addition to export controls, Tanca also lists several other areas where the momentum created by the code has made improvements, areas like human rights.

“Even if it’s not legally binding, the substance stays the same,” he says. “It creates a reference text.”

And by the European Parliament commenting on the annual reports, the COARM working group identifying and smoothing out bumps, and the member states slowly getting used to the code, he says a “circular, positive dynamics” is created. In time, the European Code of Conduct may develop into the moral benchmark Marsh is calling for.

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