#Libya throws a spotlight on European arms sales
May 2 2011, 2:15 PM by Øistein Thorsen
The eruption of civil war in Libya has thrown a spotlight on European arms sales to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. As the protests across the Arab world spread to Tripoli, the regime swiftly launched a crackdown. In response, the UK announced the suspension of ongoing arms contracts with Libya. But what were we doing selling weapons to such a repressive regime anyway?
By Martin Butcher, Oxfam Policy Adviser
From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, Libya was under arms embargo because of Colonel Gaddafi’s support for the IRA, the Lockerbie bombing and other issues. As Tony Blair and George Bush worked to bring Gaddafi in from the cold, that embargo ended. From 2005 to 2009, the UK sold €119.35m in arms to Libya including armoured vehicles; riot control equipment and sniper rifles.
But UK law says sales must be refused where there is a clear risk that they might be used for internal repression, serious breaches of international humanitarian law, or might provoke or prolong a conflict. The UK is also signed up to EU law on arms sales, which says the same things.
So, how could the UK and other European nations have decided to sell so many weapons to Libya? Especially considering Libya’s record as a country where Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have consistently recorded violations of human rights including imprisonment without trial, torture, disappearances, absence of freedom of expression and other issues of concern, and which has a long record of acting to destabilise its region and supporting terrorism. The answer lies in commercial interests including arms sales, oil and gas supplies and, for Mediterranean countries, Libya’s steadfast action to prevent migrant flows from Africa to Europe. With European partners, the UK made strategic decisions to downplay the risks to human rights and regional peace and security. That policy has gone badly wrong, with all the humanitarian consequences we now see.
So Ministers decided to review UK arms sales policy. Foreign Office civil servants broadened the review to include all sales to countries that might violate human rights. This was conducted behind closed doors, and without input from industry or NGO experts like Oxfam, Amnesty International or others. Now Ministers have to decide what to do next. Oxfam wants a full review in public, with input from all concerned – as well as Parliament to scrutinise UK arms sales to Libya over the past few years. We believe that UK law controlling arms sales should be enforced in every case, not just when it is convenient. The alternative is that we will see more pictures on TV of UK riot vehicles suppressing protest, and Spanish cluster munitions being used on civilian victims.
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