28th May 2022

Germany takes heat for EU decision on Uzbek arms embargo

EU ministers have lifted an arms embargo on Uzbekistan in a decision that has little to do with human rights and a lot to do with German military co-operation with the Central Asian dictatorship, analysts believe.

The EU statement on Tuesday (27 October) said the union is "seriously concerned" about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and would "assess progress" in EU-Uzbek relations one year down the line, while scrapping the arms ban.

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  • Uzbekistan: A strategic ally for Germany in Afghanistan and a popular destination for European tourists (Photo: Wikipedia)

The embargo was imposed in 2005 after Uzbek soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of civilians in the so-called Andijan massacre. Tashkent has refused to hold an enquiry. It continues to put political opponents in jail, torture prisoners and force children to pick cotton.

Germany says the arms move was an EU decision, not a German initiative, and that the Netherlands was the only country to voice reluctance. But Berlin made clear early on in the sanctions review process that it would not support a prolongation of the embargo, which required a consensus of 27 EU states to stay in place.

The Brussels-based NGO, the International Crisis Group (ICG), has taken Germany to task over its position, saying it has worked to unravel EU sanctions on Uzbekistan ever since 2005 in order to ensure that it keeps its military base in Termez, in the south of the country.

The Termez base, which supplies German soldiers in the Kunduz region of Afghanistan, grew in strategic importance earlier this year after Taliban fighters began attacks on German units in Kunduz and cut off another supply route via Tajikistan.

"Berlin has acted as a public relations firm for the Uzbek regime every step of the way," International Crisis Group spokesman Andrew Stroehlein told EUobserver. "Termez is playing heavily on their minds. They want to be seen as a leader on Central Asia policy in the EU and this base is important for their political self-esteem, to help them see themselves as a prominent player on the international scene."

The same day that the EU dropped the Uzbekistan arms embargo, it imposed an arms ban on the Republic of Guinea, in Africa, for a similar massacre in September in which 157 people died. The Uzbek decision risks undermining the impact of the Guinea move however, observers say.

"The EU is sending out the message: 'If we apply sanctions, don't take them too seriously, because if you have a protector in one of the big EU countries, you can get them lifted.' It's good news for dictators," Mr Stroehlein said.

Finnish green MEP Heidi Hautala, who chairs the EU parliament's sub-committee on human rights, added: "The signal to all other authoritarian regimes is clear: We speak but do not really care about your human rights if our economic and strategic interests are at stake."

Symbolic value

The Uzbekistan arms embargo was a largely symbolic EU measure.

Even prior to its imposition in 2005, Germany, for example, sold very little military equipment to Uzbekistan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, some German firms began to export surplus parts for army trucks and "dual-use" technology, such as gadgets used to intercept people's mobile phone conversations.

"I doubt there are lots of deals waiting to be made now, maybe some more telecommunications equipment, that's imaginable," Otfried Nassauer, an expert at the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS), an arms-control NGO, said.

Mr Nassauer noted that the new German government coalition last Friday said in its manifesto that it would change its code of conduct on arms sales in order to fit in with EU norms.

The German code is currently tougher than the EU code, with the latter saying export licences should be declined only in the case of a serious breach of human rights. "The new coalition will scrap our code in the name of a level playing field, to go down to the EU level," Mr Nassauer said.

Germany in 2007, in the latest data available, sold over €270,000 worth of military goods to Turkmenistan, another Central Asian regime with an egregious human rights record, despite Berlin's existing in-house rules.

Correction: Ms Heidi Hautala was originally described as a liberal MEP, but she belongs to the Green political family

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