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5th Feb 2023

MEPs bar WMD and killer robots from new EU arms fund

  • White phosphorus, when used on citizens instead of as a smoke screen, can severely damage eyes and skin (Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition)

Members of the European Parliament's industry and research committee decided on Wednesday (21 February) that the development of small arms for export purposes should not be excluded from a new EU fund for defence research.

They did list, however, some other weapon types that must not be supported with EU taxpayer money.

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  • The European Parliament is concerned with the proliferation of weapons, but its industry committee does not want to exclude small arms and light weapons from the new EU fund (Photo: Maja Zlatevska, Dnevnik)

The committee voted on a Commission proposal for a €500m European Defence Industrial Development Programme.

The original commission proposal, as well as the bill's version supported by national governments, did not address whether controversial weapon types should be eligible.

In a 105-word amendment, MEPs decided to specifically bar projects related to weapons of mass destruction from eligibility for EU funding, as well as fully autonomous weapons – known colloquially as 'killer robots'.

They said that projects "in relation to weapons of mass destruction and related warhead technologies" should not be eligible for funding, and neither should those "in relation to banned weapons and munitions".

Other red lines included weapons not compliant with international humanitarian law, like cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines – as well as "fully autonomous weapons that enable strikes to be carried out without human control over the targeting and engagement decisions".

Weapons export

MEPs had to choose between two versions of the amendment, and rejected the one which excluded projects related to light weapons mainly exported out of the EU.

"Product related actions in relation to small arms and light weapons, when they are developed mainly for export purposes, i.e. where no member state has expressed a requirement for the action to be carried out, are not eligible," said the amendment, tabled by mostly left-leaning MEPs, which was rejected.

That could mean in theory that weapons developed with EU taxpayer money end up in conflict zones abroad.

The European Parliament has recently spoken out on arms exports, acknowledging in a September 2017 resolution that the 28 EU member states are "collectively the second largest arms supplier in the world after the USA".

In that same resolution, a majority of 386 MEPs said they were "concerned that the proliferation of weapon systems in wartime and in situations with significant political tension" – and that "arms exports and transfers have an impact on human security, human rights, democracy, good governance and socio-economic development".

However, the committee MEPs on Wednesday opted for the version of the amendment that did not rule out using the defence fund for light weapons mainly developed for export.

Incendiary weapons

MEPs also decided not to specify the eligibility of so-called incendiary weapons.

The rejected text said that white phosphorus and depleted uranium ammunitions should be explicitly ruled out from the fund – but in the end MEPs decided to refer only to a United Nations treaty, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The final text merely stated that "incendiary weapons in accordance with Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons ... are not eligible", not mentioning white phosphorus or depleted uranium separately.

The use of white phosphorus munition can cause severe skin burns and eye damage.

However, there is no global agreement if white phosphorus munition always counts as an incendiary weapon under the convention.

A similar situation exists for depleted uranium ammunitions, which are not specifically governed by international arms control treaties.

Ten years ago, a majority in the European parliament asked EU and NATO member states to place a ban – "or, at the very least, a moratorium" – on the use of depleted uranium weapons.

The United Kingdom and France however have opposed resolutions in the United Nations on depleted uranium weapons – along with the United States and Israel.

Plenary vote next

The amended version of centre-right French MEP Francoise Grossetete's draft version of the regulation which will set up the fund, was adopted on Wednesday with 49 votes in favour, and twelve against.

The committee vote will be followed by a vote in plenary, where amendments may still be tabled.

Then, following the vote in Strasbourg, Grossetete will begin negotiations with the national governments and the commission on the final version of the bill.

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