Yesterday, the EU Foreign Ministers said in a statement: “EU countries will be obliged to inspect vessels and aircraft heading to Syria if they suspect the cargo contains arms or equipment for internal repression. This obligation applies in member states’ seaports and airports as well as in their territorial sea, in accordance with international law. Items that may not be exported to Syria under EU law must be seized. In addition, aircraft and vessels heading to Syria will have to provide additional pre-arrival and pre-departure information on their cargo.”
Is this news? It sounds more like common sense and I’m convinced it is what many people imagine a ‘weapons embargo’ implies. Yet, the weapon embargo against Syria had been imposed since May 2011. While presented as a new step, the statement reveals the empty reality behind strong statements.
The quote above is illustrative of the tone and posture in the announcements released by the EU’s Foreign Ministers. Their monthly meetings, chaired by EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, are usually followed by tough talk and statements. The real question is how words translate into actions, and sadly they often don’t.
What will today’s statement change, as the enforcement of the embargo has proven to be difficult so far. There have been several reported incidents of vessels reaching the Syrian harbour in Lattaakia carrying (Russian) arms and munitions for Bashar al-Assad to continue his brutal violence against the Syrian civilian population. In one case a ship docked in a Cypriot port. Several weeks ago the UK, reportedly after US Secretary of State Clinton intervened, stopped a Russian ship from reaching Syria. I have asked (1), (2), (3) Catherine Ashton to investigate such incidents and to come up with a policy to prevent these dangerous transports from happening. In other words, to actually implement the stated embargo’s and sanctions. I am very interested to learn what will change after today.
Another example: on 18 January 2012 the EU restricted the export of ICT tools (articles 4 and 5 of the Regulation), used for monitoring, and tracking of Syrians online, intercepting mobile communications and censoring the internet. I have campaigned for these kind of sanctions since the 2009 Green Movement in Iran.
By the time ‘ICT sanctions’ entered into force in January it had been almost two months since the EU Foreign Ministers announced them. This delay is dangerous, as it can create a false sense of security for (in this case) Syrians online. The gap between announcement and implementation of sanctions allows those impacted to take their time to make alternative arrangements, transfer money, etc. Statements should be made closer to the date of actual implementation.
Additionally, we learned recently that EU companies are still providing ICTs, technologies and operational support to Syrian (state) agencies and companies. Yesterday, the NGO Privacy International announced that it would seek legal action against the UK government if it would not step up its control of ICT exports to authoritarian regimes. Again, these ICT sanctions threaten to become a paper reality. In addition to export prohibitions on ICT tools we also need permanent transparency and accountability measures to end digital arms trade.
Finally, one last example of a lack of action on the EU’s side. As of 15 June 2012 an extensive list of so-called ‘dual use technologies’ are banned from exporting to Syria. Albeit ICT tools also are dubbed as dual-use technologies, these specific measures target the export of equipment, goods and technologies used for the manufacturing and maintaining of goods that may be used for internal repression, e.g. biological weapons. It is indeed appropriate to be serious about preventing the export of these technologies to Syria. Currently there is one single person in the European Commission responsible for the ‘dual use export’ dossier, and that person started a few weeks ago after the position had been vacant for months. A follow-up to a public consultation the Commission organized in October 2011, on a review of the current dual use export framework, is not expected before the end of the year. My extensive suggestions and those of others will be outdated by the time they are processed.
Instead of building a foreign policy on statements and press releases the EU has to put its money where its mouth is. The EU is the world’s biggest economic block and Syria’s biggest trading partner. The EU is also a community of values, which we should live up to by leveraging our economic power and back our words with concrete actions. By creating a foreign policy based on statements and press releases the EU is nothing more than a paper tiger in its own paper reality. We have to do much better.