EU foreign ministers must bite the bullet and extend the arms embargo on Syria

Published: 23rd May 2013

Transfer of weapons to Syria likely to spell further disaster for civilians caught in the crossfire, and fuel deadly arms race

EU Foreign Ministers meeting on Monday (May 27) in Brussels should extend the existing arms embargo on Syria or risk making the situation for civilians in the country even worse, according to international aid agency Oxfam.

The humanitarian agency says failure to extend the EU arms embargo at the end of the month would be ‘irresponsible’ and could scupper the fragile glimmer of hope for progress offered by the US-Russian peace summit scheduled for June 12.

Oxfam’s Head of Arms Control Anna Macdonald says: “Allowing the EU arms embargo to end could have devastating consequences. There are no easy answers when trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but sending more arms and ammunition clearly isn't one of them. International efforts should be focused on halting arms transfers to all sides and finding a political solution to the crisis.

“There are serious risks arms could be used to commit human rights violations. And the risks of diversion of weapons and the likely humanitarian consequences are very real. We are already seeing the catastrophic humanitarian impact of this crisis on civilians.

“Transferring more weapons to Syria can only exacerbate a hellish scenario for civilians. If the UK and France are to live up to their own commitments – including those set out in the new Arms Trade Treaty - they simply must not send weapons to Syria.”

More than 80,000 people have already lost their lives since the start of the Syria crisis two years ago and almost seven million people inside the country need humanitarian aid (UN figures). The EU arms embargo currently forbids the transfer of lethal weapons to Syria – whether to government forces or the opposition.

A relaxation of the embargo would pave the way for EU states to arm opposition groups in Syria but Oxfam says this would almost certainly fan the flames of the conflict and cost lives. Conversely, extending the EU embargo would avoid fuelling an arms race. It should be followed by a complete
international ban on all arms transfers to the warring parties in Syria, and European states should use their influence to make that a reality.

Some states, notably the UK, have claimed that promising arms supplies to the rebels will have a dual-impact, putting pressure on the Syrian government as well as encouraging the opposition groups to participate in peace talks safe in the knowledge that support would come swiftly if talks failed. However, the aid agency says that arming Syria’s rebel groups would be more likely to lead to an increased arming of government forces by others, including Russia and Iran.

"The UK and France are charting a risky course of action. Diplomacy should be the priority. The European Union and its member states should focus on pressing the warring parties to ensure civilians are safe, can access aid, and work towards a political solution to this crisis," said Macdonald.

There are no easy answers when trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but sending more arms and ammunition clearly isn't one of them.
Anna Macdonald
Oxfam's Head of Arms Control

Notes to editors

Given clear evidence, from a variety of credible sources, that the Syrian army and associated forces have committed widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, no government should transfer arms or ammunition to the Syrian government.

Given the fractured nature or opposition groups and the near impossibility of monitoring whether transferred weapons would be used to commit violations, reports of abuses, the risks of diversion of arms and ammunition and the likely humanitarian knock on effects of increased transfers, Oxfam is currently also opposed to transfers of arms and ammunition to armed groups inside Syria.

Even if the embargo were lifted, it should be noted that EU Member States would still have to abide by the EU Common Position on arms exports and prevent any arms transfer presenting a clear risk to contribute to HR or IHL violations, or prolong armed conflicts (see:

Oxfam has been advocating to bring the arms trade under control for more than a decade and played a crucial role in the campaign to secure a robust Arms Trade Treaty. Under the new treaty – which was passed by majority vote at the UN in April this year and opens for signature on June 3 – arms transfers must not be authorized where there is a major risk the weapons will be used to commit violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.

Contact information

For more information or to arrange interviews call Angela Corbalan on Tel +32 (0) 2 234 11 15 or mobile + 32 (0) 473 56 22 60

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