Defence

While condemning Sri Lanka violence, EU still sells arms to government

19.05.09 @ 17:35

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - The European Union on Monday (18 May) called for an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations resulting from the conflict in Sri Lanka and demanded those responsible be held to account.

  • While the EU has criticised the violence in Sri Lanka, some states continue to arm the government they are condemning (Photo: wikipedia)

However, at the same as issuing strong language condemning attacks on civilians, certain EU member states continue to arm the Sri Lankan authorities in breach of the EU's code of conduct on arms exports, according to the latest data from European governments.

"The EU is appalled by the loss of innocent civilian lives as a result of the conflict and by the high numbers of casualties, including children, following recent intense fighting in northern Sri Lanka," said European foreign ministers in a statement following a meeting in Brussels on Monday (18 May).

"The EU calls for the alleged violations of these laws to be investigated through an independent inquiry," the statement continued. "Those accountable must be brought to justice."

A number of EU member states - including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the UK, France, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Poland - have however continued to arm the Sri Lankan government since the election of hardline president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005.

According to the EU's latest report on arms export licences published in December, the nine governments authorised arm sales licences to Sri Lanka to the value of €4.09 million in 2007, the same year that Colombo launched its final offensive on the Tamil rebels.

The licensed material ranges from small weapons, ammunition and explosives to missiles, ground vehicles, naval vessels and aircraft, with the eastern European member states mainly supplying small arms, while western member states sell the bigger hardware. Additionally, in 2008, Slovakia authorised the sale of 10,000 rockets to the country.

The EU report is compiled annually to ensure that European countries comply with the EU's Code of Conduct on Arms Exports. Until 2008, the Code had not been legally-binding but instead more of an ethical benchmark for the EU club.

However, in December last year, it was transformed into what is known as an EU 'Common Position', meaning member states must adhere to its restrictions.

According to the code, members states should "not issue an export licence if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression."

'Bloodbath'

The United Nations has reported that some 6,500 civilians were killed and 14,000 wounded in fighting in Sri Lanka from January to the end of April this year.

On 8 May, the UN also called on the Human Rights Council to set up an international inquiry.

In February, Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing the Sri Lankan Army of "slaughtering" civilians during indiscriminate artillery attacks, including regular shelling of hospitals. The group also demanded that Colombo cease detaining displaced people in army-controlled internment camps.

Doctors working in clinics in the conflict area allege that 378 civilians were killed and another 1,122 injured during heavy shelling on the night of 9 May alone, according to BBC reports rejected by Colombo.

A UN spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, also reported that over 100 children were killed as a result of "large-scale killing of civilians, describing the warzone as a "bloodbath."

Code of Conduct impotent

The value of delivered EU shipments in 2007 is lower than the €4 million figure, coming in at €1.16 million, but the remainder may still have been shipped since or will be at some point in the future.

The bulk of Sri Lanka's weapons shipments do not come from the EU, with Colombo preferring to access its armaments from poorer countries with lower prices. EU-origin arms sales to the south Asian country pale in comparison to those from Ukraine and Iran.

In 2007, Ukraine sold four Mig-27s to Colombo for €7.2 million ($9.8m). Iran agreed to an arms deal worth up to €104 million ($140.9m), including missile systems for the Sri Lankan air force, navy patrol boats and a small arms ammunition plant, according to Jane's Defence Weekly.

China has been Sri Lanka's biggest arms supplier since the 1990s. In 2007, China sold €27.8 million ($37.6m) of ammunition and in 2008 lent Colombo six F7 jet fighters in 2008.

European foreign ministers on Monday would not be drawn on the question of arms sales. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, the bloc's foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, refused to comment.

Siemon Weizeman, a senior fellow with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute working on its arms transfer programme, told EUobserver it is not the amount of the EU sales that is the problem, but that they showcase the impotence of the arms sales Code of Conduct.

"The EU has on numerous occasions condemned both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government for gross human rights violations," he said. "Normally this would translate into denials of the sale of military equipment to these actors, but that has not been the case."

"They give the impression that there is an EU policy, but in reality there are just a series of national policies decided on a case-by-case basis," he continued.

"The scale of the transfers is not on the same level as other powers, but the EU needs to get its act together on this for its own moral integrity."