Human rights embargoed
Human rights embargoed
Protests and Far-Right Politics in Israel and Europe
Protests and Far-Right Politics in Israel and Europe
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Human rights embargoed

"Least common denominator" should not be the principle that characterises any European foreign policy decision. Increasingly, however, this is how we are moving forward on key issues of human rights abuses - a development that not only ignores the victims but also undermines the EU's potential influence.

In 2005, Uzbek security forces killed some 750 civilian protesters in the town of Andijan. In response, the EU established a number of sanctions against the regime, including an arms embargo. Over the past four years, the EU has bit by bit dropped all Andijan-related measures apart from the arms embargo, which is now slated for the scrap heap at the October 26-27 meeting of European foreign ministers - unless all member states agree to maintain it. Without any discernable improvement in the country's human rights record or accountability for the massacre, this would be the latest example of an increasingly weak European response to human rights abuses.

Arms embargoes are part of the EU's sanctions "quiver" which includes targeted travel bans, asset freezes and business restrictions. These sanctions ensure that junta-linked Burmese businessmen cannot deal in Europe, Iran's banks are hobbled, and those countries that slaughter their civilians are at the very least not allowed to use European weapons to do so.

Admittedly, they are not the most watertight of despot sealants: a sanctioned Mugabe can pop up at a summit in Lisbon or, worse, Beijing can bankroll the Naypyidaw junta and make European business and asset sanctions close to pointless. Similarly, an arms embargo on an autocracy with easy access to nearby arms markets hardly seems worth the effort. Uzbekistan, for example, has no need for top European technology: the regime can easily use old Soviet guns to shoot its citizens.

Even the threshold for maintaining sanctions has dropped significantly. The arms embargo on China in force since the Tiananmen Sqaure massacre 20 years ago will remain in place until there is unanimity to remove it, not to maintain it as with Uzbekistan. There are internal EU reasons for this, not least the difficulty in preserving unanimity among 27, but internal machinations give an external message of lenient selectivity. Member states even flout their own tough measures on occasion: no sooner had the EU sanctions been put in place than the Uzbek interior minister received medical treatment in Germany, despite being on the new travel black list.

Europe is not a global superpower in any traditional sense. It is not a "hard power" but includes some of the strongest security forces in the world, and it is not a typical "soft power" but leads on development assistance. It is a normative superpower: a social and cultural leader with a legitimacy that relies on diversity, inclusiveness and the rule of law. Just as a military operation that runs out of helicopters or soldiers won't succeed, a normative superpower that cannot pull its own moral weight undermines its image and influence.

The reason for the EU failing to live up to its own ideals is the perpetual tension between national and EU-wide interests. In the sphere of foreign policy, when national and EU interests collide, the member state prerogative dominates, and the short-term strategic or economic gain for that state - or states - outweighs the detriment to the whole bloc. The selfishness of the one damages the commons of credibility.

Any society that declares one set of guiding principles but follows another does not do itself any favours. You need only look at the damage to US international relations when domestic standards are suspended and result in shackled orange jumpsuits behind high security fencing at Guantanamo and beyond.

The arms embargo on Uzbekistan has been largely symbolic, but for a foreign policy power with the unique shape and context of the EU, symbols matter. Its demise would further erode the EU's influence.

As this sanction is removed, and others undermined, the message to Europe's potential partners is this: don't be confused by our rhetoric on ethics and laws - if you have something to offer we can easily embargo our values.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.