The Paradoxes of Human Rights Discourse

06/29/2015 05:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

Or, Why European Countries Just Cannot Keep Selling Warplanes to Dictators and Call Themselves Promoters of Human Rights
By Antoine Sander, European Horizons

Last February, French company Dassault Aviations concluded a deal with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi exchanging 24 Rafale combat jets for 5.2 billion dollars. The deal was chaperoned by the French state, which even lent Egypt 3 of the 5 billion dollars involved in the sale. In France, this deal was hailed as a tremendous success; the Figaro's headline read "Historic contract for the Rafale in Egypt" and French president François Hollande, in unison with his right-wing detractors, lauded the sale publicly, even sending his Defence Minister to sign the deal in "the name of France." Indeed, the Rafale was for 14 years a thorn in France's foot. Acknowledged to be one of the better planes on the market, the Rafale had since 2001 failed to seduce any national defense force enough to make them forget its formidable price tag. Deliverance came with the fall of the Euro and this first sale of the Rafale to the Egyptian Air Force. At the time of writing, France had just secured a second deal, this time with India.

However, very few French politicians or media took note of the fact that France, by encouraging and arranging the sale of those planes to the Egyptian government, was publicly supporting and even arming a regime known for its human rights abuses. A January report by Human Rights Watch, probably published at the very moment the sale negotiations were coming to a close, highlights the major drawbacks that followed the arrival of al-Sisi at the head of the Egyptian state. HRW writes that "since he came to power, [al-Sisi] has presided over a state of impunity that has allowed security forces to get away with mass killings while imprisoning hundreds of peaceful protesters" and qualify his 2013 execution of more than 1,000 pro-Morsi supporters as "a likely crime against humanity."

How can a human rights discourse coexist so easily with the support of brutal dictatorial regimes? We all know that big money is an eternal rule of international relations, yet what is shocking is the lack of international, European and domestic reaction to this deal. Only the very lonely members of the Ecological party EELV denounced what they call "the delivery of weapons of war to a military dictatorship whose violations against human rights are now legion." Meanwhile, Sweden has last month suspended the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia on Human Rights count. The Swedes remain major arms exporter, but have through the voice of their self-proclaimed feminist Foreign Minister loudly voiced their concerns at the compatibility between arms exports and human rights protection. For the first time, a Western government seems to be keen on addressing one of its major hypocrisies.

Now, it's no news that big and powerful countries have been selling arms to Human Rights violators, and France's Egypt-Dassault deal is only a recent and particularly telling example. However, this does not make it more excusable in any way. Nor does that spare international organizations from clamping down on those deals. The Swedish position could, perhaps, wake Europe from its amoral mediocrity. While seemingly "promoting human rights and democracy around the world", member states of the EU have sold weapons around the same corners of the globe they strive to "protect", without the Council of Europe, supposed "defender of human rights", ever rising an eyebrow. Sadly, this hypocrisy has lasting and negative consequences on Europe's capacity to actually promote human rights, as it undermines critically the European Union's credibility vis-à-vis the rest of the world. By actively taking sides and sponsoring human rights violation, Europeans are not only violating their principles, they are also harming their diffusion around the globe.