Dangerous Goods: Tracing European Arms Used in Oppression and Human Rights Violations

By Benjamin Strick

European arms have played a significant role in almost every conflict across the globe. Since 2018, a Bellingcat collaboration has documented, using open source, how European countries and companies have breached their own, and international, laws dozens of times.

Through the EU Arms Project, a Bellingcat and Lighthouse Reports collaborative initiative, we have documented where European arms end up after their export licences have been granted.

Our most recent project, #SpanishArms, documents where Spain has approved export licences for arms sold to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Nicaragua, and how those arms have been used in the facilitation of oppression or human rights violations.

Spain’s arms industry is on the rise, indicated by their climb from 933 million Euro in 2007 to €4.3 billion Euro in 2017, lamenting it with the title of 7th place among the world’s top arms exporters between 2014 and 2018. We’ve looked at arms like this Spanish patrol boat seen below, operated by the Royal Moroccan Navy and geolocated to the port of Dakhla in occupied Western Sahara (more here).

The importance of documenting where European arms end up

The European Union Common Position provides a set of rules agreed upon by EU members to determine:

  • How an export licence is granted; and
  • To avoid the use of European weapons in human rights abuses and to foster regional instability.

EU states are then called to integrate such provisions in their legal systems in a legally binding mechanism. For example, the below sets out one of the criteria agreed upon by EU Member States:

Criterion Two: Respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law.

Having assessed the recipient country’s attitude towards relevant principles established by international human rights instruments, Member States shall:

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