The Arms Trade: When Interests and Obligations Meet

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Černín Palace

In recent years the Czech arms industry has experienced a small renaissance. During the last five years, trade in military material has risen from a volume of EUR 62.8 million in 2009 to EUR 138.2 million in 2013. This more than 100 % growth has affected exports that can be perceived as risky. That is a designation that primarily includes transfers heading to countries with a general deficit of democratic rule, involving high levels of corruption, where nepotism is alive and well and the governing elites are of a generally autocratic nature (in 2013 these were countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Yemen).

In this context, Amnesty International speaks of a stable estimate of roughly one-third of the total exports of military material from the Czech Republic as comprising such risky transfers, heading to countries where they could contribute to human rights violations or violent repression (in 2014, 48 % of such exports went to such destinations). Are Czech products, in this context, becoming tools for power in the hands of undemocratic regimes?

In the interest of a more comprehensive reflection upon this problem we must outline a certain contradiction that dominates the debate on the nature of the trade in military material. The Czech Republic is a long-time partner in dialogues that essentially endeavour to effectively regulate the flow of military material in the international arena. The country has also actively contributed at the UN within the framework of talks on the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty and is a member of international arms control regimes and negotiations concerning the trade in defence industry products, as well as being bound by the criteria of the Council of the EU’s Common Position 2008/944/CFSP. Domestically, the Czech Republic, in its concept documents, espouses support for the values of democracy, human rights, international peace and security, which, together with other components of foreign policy, should combine into a whole (see, e.g., the Foreign Policy Concept; compare this with the Concept on Transformational Policy or the Concept on Foreign Development Cooperation).

Act 38/1994 Coll. (the Law on Foreign Trade in Military Material) integrates all of these formal obligations in the context of the trade in military material; this law can be considered standard for the European area as a matter of legislation and systemic arrangement. Control of the foreign trade in military material takes place within the framework of a two-phase licensing administration regime, and binding standpoints from the ministries involved (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Trade and Industry) are a component of that regime. From the perspective of foreign policy interests, the most important position is occupied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which must take into consideration not only the strategic interests of the Czech Republic, but also the obligations flowing from international treaties and the Czech Republic’s membership in international organizations. When it comes to monitoring, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in addition to its own internally-established priorities, primarily uses the key criteria flowing from the Common Position of the Council of the EU 2008/944/SZBP (the so-called Code of Conduct).

Table 1: Eight criteria of the Common Position of the Council of the EU 2008/944/SZBP

Summary of the eight criteria guiding national licensing policies laid down in Common Position 2008/944/CFSP:

  1. Respect for the international obligations and commitments of Member States, in particular the sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council or the European Union, agreements on non-proliferation and other subjects, as well as other international obligations.
  2. Respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law.
  3. Internal situation in the country of final destination, as a function of the existence of tensions or armed conflicts.
  4. Preservation of regional peace, security and stability.
  5. Behaviour of the buyer country with regard to the international community, as regards in particular its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and respect for international law.
  6. National security of the Member States and of territories whose external relations are the responsibility of a Member State, as well as that of friendly and allied countries.
  7. Existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions.
  8. Compatibility of the exports of the military technology or equipment with the technical and economic capacity of the recipient country, taking into account the desirability that states should meet their legitimate security and defence needs with the least diversion of human and economic resources for armaments.

This brief outline aims to describe a certain discrepancy that dominates the current system for controlling military material. On the one hand there are obligations and priorities that are part of the conceptual documents and international treaties, while on the other hand there are economic interests that violate those norms in many ways. Last year the Czech Republic exported military material in the SVM 1 categories (smooth-bore weapons with a calibre of less than 20 mm, other arms and automatic weapons with a calibre of 12.7 mm or less, accessories and specially-designed components) to Egypt, Iraq and Thailand. Ground vehicles and their components (SVM 6) headed to Algeria, Cambodia and Saudi Arabia from the Czech Republic. Ammunition, fuses and specially designed components (SVM 3) were supplied to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. All of these countries have problems with upholding fundamental human rights and are repressive, with the use of force comprising a integral component of their power apparatus.

This particular contradiction, however, is not unique to the Czech Republic. We can find a similar situation for arms exports from France, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Spain. The basic argument made by these countries in the debates on this issue represents the cynicism of political interests and export priorities to a great extent – “If we don’t export them, someone else will.” The trade in military material has long belonged among the most highly lucrative business activities and is part of a significantly competitive international market.

Within the framework of economic interests, therefore, it is logical that states support a pro-export policy, even at the cost of reinterpreting their own normative obligations. This discrepancy does not exist in the case of the unproblematic destinations that comprise on average around 60 % of all of the Czech Republic’s arms experts. However, the situation changes with those countries where the state monopoly on violence constitutes a permanent threat to the opposition structures in society (just this year this resonated primarily in the case of the export of CZ P-07 Duty pistols to Egypt; in the past they have been exported, for example, to Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen). Returning to the question outlined above, it is necessary to view the export of military material to risky countries with a certain dose of mistrust at a minimum and to ask what the qualities are of the elites purchasing such equipment. In that context, there is not much room for optimism in the current situation.

To address this situation, which almost every European country finds itself in, we could institute greater transparency and overall monitoring of the obligations established at both international and national level. It is precisely those obligations, at a theoretical level, that reflect the cultural and political traditions of European countries, traditions that are, in the current system, “turned off” under certain circumstances. The economic interests of states should not enter into conflict with our preferred values but should coexist with them – or at least our values should provide more of a counterbalance to our economic interests. A partial solution would also be to seek new markets that, from the point of view of stability, do not represent problematic destinations for Czech or European arms exports (an approach indirectly proposed by the Strategy for the Relations between the State and the Defence and Security Industry of the Czech Republic).

In the case of foreign support in risky countries, it is also necessary to seek effective guarantees that the exported military material will not be used against civilians or opposition groups. The largely formal promises and commitments considered sufficient today must be reflected in practical actions at the sites of these business activities. The policy of support for the export of military material needs clearly established guidelines that will not create the precedent of a double standard.