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On 23 July, the European Union lifted the arms embargo against Iraq. On 11 October, Libya got its turn. Why were there embargoes against each of them in the first place? They were both pariah states; Iraq had invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Libya had been accused of sponsoring terrorist groups and attacks, of which the most famous in Europe was the 1998 Lockerbie bombing. Brian Bunyan investigates.

Europe returns to making deadly deals with Iraq and Libya

Who are the biggest and most willing purchasers of arms? Tyrants. Why? They need to oppress their own people and to conquer others, to do this one needs the appropriate tools. Who are the biggest sellers and producers of arms? Democracies. Why? They have the market capacity to produce them. Strange bedfellows, but supply and demand brings them together. A cynic would contend that wars and violence are manufactured to make profits, because wars are boom times for almost all involved, except the losers of course.

The arms embargo precluded arms business transactions and were part of a general sanctions regime, so on the one hand Iraq and Libya were losing valuable funds and materials, but on the other, European companies were losing access to Iraq and Libya's oil, tourism and infrastructure. Therefore, not everyone approves of embargoes. Just ask any arms manufacturer. In their view, embargoes are counter-productive, because you lose commercial advantage and political influence.

Looking at who were the war's opponents in Europe, France and Germany were the big names. They were also some of biggest sellers of weapons to Iraq prior to the war. Their opposition cost them dearly as they were not given a single contract in the new Iraq, however small. France was probably quite upset as the country had a long history of profitable contacts that were now coming to an end. So, following the war in Iraq, the embargo needed to be lifted and, while it was not an easy sell, it eventually occurred.

Forgive and forget?

When these embargoes' walls came down, many British arms manufacturers gleefully walked across. Most are the usual suspects, such as International Military Services who helped develop Iraq's nuclear programme, Meed in the case of Iraq's chemical programme, and Terex in the rocket programme. This gleefulness will be somewhat shocking given the previous acts of both the Libyan and Iraqi governments. Was all now forgiven and forgotten?

In Iraq's case, as the tyrant was gone and a new regime in place, maybe the incumbents could not be held responsible for the previous horrors. With Libya, the fact that compensation had been paid for the Lockerbie and Berlin bombings to the victims' families could be viewed as a tyrant moving on. In both cases, Blair and Schroeder clearly thought so. They both visited Gadaffi within weeks of the Libyan arms embargo being lifted.

No will to refuse

British arms export licences had been issued to Iraq and Libya between January and June 2004, months before these embargoes were officially ended. In the case of Iraq, the licences represented over #25m that comprised 500 assault rifles and more than 20,000 semi-automatic rifles. This represented part of the initial steps to rebuild and rearm the Iraqi army, while in the case of Libya, licences for less than #100,000 of chemicals and chemical-related equipment was issued during the same period.

Interestingly, the level of refusals of export licenses in Britain was non-existent over the first half of 2004 as the willingness to export arms was overriding other considerations and it appeared that it foresaw the political desire to officially end the embargo later in the year.

Back on track?

While there are EU rules governing exports of arms, there are also quite a few loopholes and lapses in its regulation. And individual countries have their own domestic rules: for instance, Germany has legislation preventing it from exporting arms to a crisis region, but as a law needs to be passed in order to categorise Iraq as such, it is unlikely to happen given the commercial opportunities involved.

Sadly, the members of the European Union have differing interpretations of the EU's laws governing exports of arms. The motivations of which are both political and economic. These differences would explain why export licences were granted prior to the embargo being lifted.

When looking at the European countries that violated past arms embargoes through various schemes, side deals and downright illegal transactions, France, Spain, Italy, Britain and Slovakia were high on the list. They had lax controls on third country or parties involved in arms transaction, on arms brokers operating off-shore as well as on end-use monitoring of materials sold. There is a hope in most European capitals that a new Iraqi government would reverse the US policy of favouring contracts being given to those countries that supported the war, perhaps returning countries like Germany to their previous levels of arms exports.

Increasing militarisation?

According to a recent War Resisters' International analysis, the new EU constitution, if ratified, will only increase the militarisation of the Europe at the expense of social programmes; therefore we could see more arms being exported in the near future.

Of course, the other way is to propose an International Arms Trade Treaty as Amnesty International has recently done, or even get rid of the military.

Brian Bunyan is a PN news editor.

Topics: Arms trade | Europe