Last week, the French government published its latest report on arms exports, documenting sales and transfers throughout 2019. After Qatar, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt received the greatest amounts, accounting for €1.4 billion and €1.0 billion in arms, respectively. But providing arms to countries repeatedly implicated in serious abuses, including possible war crimes, contradicts its goal to be seen as a global leader for human rights values.
These figures illustrate the profound contradictions of French diplomacy. On the one hand, the government rightly promotes respect for international humanitarian law and makes the protection of civilians in conflicts one of its top priorities; on the other, it still supplies arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the gross and widely documented violations by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen since 2015, with disastrous human rights and humanitarian consequences for civilians in the country.
That Egypt is among the top three purchasers of French arms is just as shocking and appalling. Human Rights Watch has documented the serious abuses and war crimes committed by the Egyptian army during operations in North Sinai. Furthermore, Amnesty International has reported on the use of French equipment in the bloody repression of demonstrations by Egyptian security forces in recent years. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has been enduring the worst crackdown on basic and fundamental rights in decades.
Not only is it contrary to France’s international obligations to persist in selling arms to these countries despite the clear risk they may be used to commit serious violations and war crimes, the sales give an effective green light to abusers. They undermine France’s credibility in its role promoting international law and universal human rights values at a time when they face serious attacks around the world.
The French government frequently evokes its support in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East and the necessary strategic autonomy of the French arms industry to justify its arms sales to these countries. But these arguments are not tenable – neither justifies France becoming complicit in atrocities against civilian populations. If the government really wants to support security and stability in the region, it should instead promote respect for human rights values.
It is more than urgent and necessary for France to reconcile its deeds with its words, and stop fueling terrible rights abuses with its arms sales.