Europe and firearms: an old, familiar ethical dilemma


Picture of Peter Squires
Peter Squires

Professor of Criminology and Public Policy

Peter Squires is Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton, President of the British Society for Criminology and the author of Gun Culture or Gun Control? and Gun Crime in Global Contexts

Europe’s role in firearm production and exportation raises important questions regarding its commitment to ethical governance and the establishment of international norms relating to democracy, accountability and human rights. According to scholars, such as Dr. Jennifer Erickson, European powers have failed to constrain arms exports to buyers with poor human rights records despite promising to exclude such partners. What does this mean regarding the implementation of transparency for arms exports following the initial rounds of reporting on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)?

More recent concerns have arisen about trade with regimes outside the ATT or those, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where systematic human rights abuses are reported. Since 2008, nearly one-third of UK arms exports went to countries on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights watch-list. This lukewarm adherence to international gun norms is part of an ongoing debate about ethical governance and the arms trade – one in which we are still ensnared. It also poses some critical questions about Europe’s historic and overwhelming contribution to the arming of the world.

As Priya Satia explained in her recently published book Empire of Guns: The violent making of the industrial revolution, the source of this can be found in the development of the gun-making trade in England and its foundational role in the industrial revolution. More subtly and critically it is about the production and procurement of firearms, the stockpiling and dissemination of weapons, the deployment of military firearms around the world in the pursuit of empire and the achievement of military conquest. The book also explains how, in the aftermath of conflicts, the state and the gun trade conspired to dump, sell and off-load old, obsolete and often damaged firearms to a range of legitimate and illegitimate purchasers, often in pursuit of political or economic alliances or the furtherance of particular influence. Familiar, contemporary issues undoubtedly.

The close connections to matters of national security obfuscates transparency behind the need for confidentiality

Satia demonstrates the firearm’s role in the development of class relations, particularly due to its use in the defence of private property long before it acquired a reputation for the facilitation of crime. Globally, firearms were instrumental to the process of empire building, exploitation and resource extraction, as well as the conduct and perpetuation of the slave trade. Most intriguingly of all, however, she explains the disconnection between conscience and commerce that has shielded the arms trade ever since its conception. After all, a thriving arms industry was in the national interest, whereas ‘too moral a posture would only send the unscrupulous customer elsewhere’.

Certain sensibilities have changed, and a 20-year process of lobbying, evidencing and negotiation culminated in the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the ATT, bringing greater transparency and responsibility to arms dealing. Article 7.1.b.iv provides that states shall not authorise exports where there is a risk that the arms in question could be used as an instrument of transnational organised crime, a crime in which the exporter would be seen as an accomplice.

Early in 2016 the ControlArms campaign reported on the scale of European arms transfers to Saudi Arabia in the context of the Yemeni Civil War. Their evidence revealed that nine countries who were party to the ATT issued arms export licenses or exported weapons to Saudi Arabia during 2015. Of these nine countries, seven of them were core members of the EU. According to Anna MacDonald, some European states tightened up their arms export process in response to the Yemeni crisis, but for others, the UK and France in particular, it was ‘business as usual’. As Erickson – echoing Satia – notes, there is often a “glaring disconnect between states’ ‘responsible’ policies and their ‘irresponsible’ practices… commitment can come without compliance”.

According to Transparency International (TI), many leading European arms export countries do relatively little to address corruption in the arms trade. A 2013 report noted that some of Britain’s more lucrative existing markets for arms, including countries such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Oman, involve regimes where there is “a very high risk” of corruption. More recent TI reporting shows that while significant efforts have been made to increase transparency and accountability within the arms trade, risk of corruption “remains a regular feature of international arms deals”. The report notes that “where corruption has been uncovered, it tends to be widespread, authorised or encouraged at senior levels, and illustrative of an unethical corporate culture as a whole”.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has argued that risk and corruption in international arms dealing is directly related to the institutional structure of the trade. The close connections to matters of national security obfuscates transparency behind the need for confidentiality. This is facilitated by a contingent of state officials and fixers armed with security clearances, who help blur the lines between state, military and the industry.

Firearms have become a means to embolden followers through a call to arms against perceived crime, terror or migrant ‘threats’

If such pressures impact externally, they also have internal European repercussions whereby surplus, sometimes deactivated, firearms are traded in bulk across Europe, percolating down to a supposed retail souvenir trade for firearms enthusiasts. This was the route by which deactivated AK47 variant rifles purchased in Slovakia found their way, once reactivated, into the hands of the terrorists who shot up the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2015. The same year, 22 further AKM rifles and 9 Skorpion machine pistols, purchased from the same Slovakian dealer, were intercepted by police as a criminal gang tried to smuggle them into Kent – the largest haul of illegal weapons ever seized in the UK.

And finally, if there are European ‘reputational’ issues associated with doubtful firearm trading and dissemination practices, another related threat has arisen as certain parties and populist movements advocate a nationalist right to bear arms. Firearms have become a means to embolden followers through a call to arms against perceived crime, terror or migrant ‘threats’. The Czech Republic recently passed legislation advocating a ‘right to bear arms’, while politicians in Hungary, and Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, have advocated extending gun laws to allow private citizens to defend themselves. This stance has also been echoed by Alternative for Germany ’s leader, Frauke Petry. Correspondingly, Finland, Austria, Norway, Germany, Belgium and France have also seen increasing rates of firearm ownership.

The politics of arms trade transparency have certainly made dealing in weapons a moral and reputational issue across Europe. This is a normative progress of a sort. However, rising affection for gun ownership and the ease of purchasing black-market arms shows there is rather more going on that still needs to be addressed.

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