EU puts arms sales above reason

By Brian Low

Indonesia is in the news again. Believe it or not, the island nation is experiencing numerous ongoing problems, mostly related to ethnic violence, unauthorized militia activity, and threats of a military coup. In the midst of all this, the European Union lifted its ban on arms sales to Indonesia. This is perhaps not the best-advised course of action.

The ban on arms sales to Indonesia serves a number of purposes. In the first place, it limits the amount of military weaponry that Indonesia is able to acquire. It reflects the sentiment that if you’re afraid the arms you sell might be used to perpetrate injustices, it is best not to sell them at all. Another purpose of the ban on arms sales is to reflect international disapproval of the way a home government is running its country. It sends the message that it can’t be trusted with anything that might hurt someone, kind of the international equivalent of being told not to run with scissors. The third purpose of a ban on the sale of arms is to force a government to adopt spending priorities other than its military. If the people are starving in the streets, the money is better spent on rice than m16’s. Just a thought.

The EU, by lifting its ban on the sale of arms to Indonesia, sends the message that: Indonesia needs no limit on the quantity of its arms; Indonesia can be trusted by the international community; and arms are a legitimate spending priority for the Indonesian government.

Does this message seem a little fishy to anyone else?

In truth, Indonesia has made dramatic progress, but more weaponry is about the last thing this country needs. Human rights abuses and military crackdowns have gone on for months in the provinces of Aceh and the Indonesian Spice Islands. Just last week there was talk of a coup by the military, dissatisfied by its loss of political influence since the fall of Suharto’s regime. This week, Australian peacekeeping troops had to fight Indonesian reservists operating in the East Timor exclave of Oecussi. If there’s any group of people that could benefit from fewer arms in the hands of the military, it’s the Indonesians.

And how willing should the EU be to send the message that it trusts Indonesia with any arms it sells? Forget the last 20 years. Forget even the last year. Indonesia hasn’t even been able to reign in its military for the last week! This is not the kind of place that should have the designation of trustworthy, and that is exactly what has happened.

As for the spending priorities of the Indonesian government, Indonesia was hit worst than any other Southeast Asian nation by the recent Asian economic crisis. There are literally thousands, if not millions, of Indonesians that want for the basic necessities of life. What they need is potable water, not more bullets.

Perhaps the EU intended to lend more legitimacy to the regime. Possibly it wanted to give President Wiranto the tools to quell the ethnic unrest. Or maybe it was simply manipulated by Western parties interested in capitalizing on the Indonesian government’s apparent penchant for violence and the oppression of its own citizens. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: by selling Indonesia arms, the EU can only be shooting both itself and Indonesian citizens in the foot.

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