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Why the EU has double standards on sanctions and arms sales

  • Alican Tekingunduz
  • 1 Nov 2019

In an attempt to threaten Turkey over its limited cross-border operation in Syria, many European countries discontinued selling arms to Ankara, while they continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia to fuel its full-scale war in Yemen.

In this file photo released Sept. 24, 2014 by the official Saudi Press Agency, Saudi pilots sits in the cockpit of a fighter. ( AP )

Some European Union countries limited arms exports to Turkey on October 14, as a countermeasure to their NATO ally’s military operation in northern Syria, which aims to remove the presence of the YPG and its ideological and logistical mentor the PKK, a terror group in the eyes of Turkey, US and EU. 

Italy, the top arms exporter to Turkey last year, said it would join a ban on selling weapons and ammunition to Ankara following France and Germany. 

Turkish authorities fully rejected and condemned the decisions taken by the EU.

The EU nations were however called out by many experts and rights advocates for displaying stark double standards and for not taking similar measures against Saudi Arabia, a country that has been waging a bloody war on Yemen since 2015. 

“In the past, there has even been public pressure in several European states to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but governments have tended to resist those pressures,” said Associate Professor Jennifer L. Erickson from Boston College, while speaking to TRT World. 

“Combined with the US-Saudi relationship offering veto-power protection from a UN Security Council arms embargo, I am much less surprised at the absence of an EU arms embargo in the Saudi Arabia case,” Erickson added. 

The Saudi-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes and backing militias in Yemen, driving human suffering on a staggering scale. The Saudi kingdom has faced international criticism for bombing schools, hospitals and wedding parties, killing thousands of civilians since 2015.

In light of human toll and misery caused by the war in Yemen, European nations have faced criticism for turning a blind eye to Saudi-led coalition's devastating role in protracting the conflict and continuing to arm them. 

Germany halted arms sales briefly

Germany reversed its initial ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in March 2018, resuming them eight months later in November. The German government even ignored the brutal killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2.

 According to SIPRI, Germany is one of the world’s five biggest arms exporters but its account equals just 1.8 percent of total arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest importer of arms in global market valued at over $7.76 billion in 2018, according to London-based global information provider IHS Markit.

Saudi human rights violations in Yemen

Yemen's civil war started in 2014 when the Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country's north. The Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab states intervened in March 2015 to push back against the Iranian-backed Houthis.

The fighting has killed more than 94,000 people including over 16,000 in 2019, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, which tracks the war.

One of the worst Saudi attacks on Yemeni civilians happened in August 2018 when an air raid hit a bus driving in a busy market in northern Yemen on August 9, killing at least 51 people, including at least 40 children, and wounding 77.

The human rights group also shared a report saying that every month 37 Yemeni children are killed or injured by ‘foreign bombs’.

The UN calls the situation in Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history.

According to reports to the UN Security Council by Mark Lowcock, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 24 million people in Yemen - nearly 80 percent of the population - are now in desperate need of aid, including humanitarian aid, food, medicine and petrol.

The US Senate voted twice to end American support to the kingdom’s ongoing war in Yemen.

The Senate condemned the war and stood against the presidential power, which can bypass any congressional decision on the issue.

The EU’s legal framework on arms sales

European Union member states adopted an arms export policy­—the 2008 Common Position on arms export controls— that establishes the regulations for export licenses by taking into consideration the destination country’s respect for international human rights and humanitarian law.

According to the policy: “The Member States are determined to prevent the export of military technology and equipment which might be used for internal repression or international aggression or contribute to regional instability.”

Before sending all kinds of military equipment, the EU demands respect for human rights within the final destination country as well as respect for international humanitarian law.

Moreover, internal repression which includes torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, summary or arbitrary executions, disappearances, arbitrary detentions in the destination country cannot be accepted by the member states to export arms sales.

The EU does not have a formal mechanism to apply the rules of the Common Position which weakened the Union’s principled power and its credibility.

In her research paper, Associate Professor Erickson from Boston College analyses the relation between the EU’s normative power rhetoric and its arms transfer policy. 

She found out that “none of the EU criteria — human rights, democracy, or conflict — emerge as significant factors for arms transfers in the direction anticipated by the normative power perspective”.

Indeed, the relations between human rights and arms export had been opposite between the years 1990-2004.

What is behind the EU’s double standard?

PhD Candidate and Political Analyst Nicolai Due-Gundersen, at Kingston University, said the reason why the EU does not halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia is that they regard the House of Saud both as a strategic ally and energy providers, which encourages EU states to turn a blind eye to the kingdom's actions in Yemen.

Under the Trump administration, Gundersen told TRT World, the EU's relations with Middle East states are often influenced by the US.

“The EU is less reliant on Turkey for energy solutions, but very aware of Turkey's geostrategic location and NATO membership, which also affects how EU states perceive any military action by Turkey in the Middle East.,” he said.

“Oil and energy needs are crucial in how the EU (and US) treat Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is aware of this and planning to increase its oil supply to Europe over the next two years.”

Being a traditional US and Western ally in the Middle East is another factor for the European countries for their stance against Saudi Arabia, he added.

“Saudi Arabia has the largest defence budget in the region but also outsources some security to Western firms. In addition, large arms purchases by Saudi Arabia from European weapons manufacturers allows EU states to indirectly project hard power in the Middle East,” Gundersen said.

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