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Libya: lessons in controlling the arms trade

In the current military air strikes against Libyan forces, nations that once supported Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime are now—based on sanction by the United Nations—attacking the forces they were marketing and delivering arms to only weeks before. As the violence escalates and the international community examines how to respond to internal conflict and human rights violations, arms supply should be analysed as it implicates the international community as complicit in the violence it is now trying to end.

The United Nations Security Council has responded to the violence in Libya with remarkable speed and determination. Within two weeks of the start of the uprising in February, the Security Council unanimously denounced the gross and systematic violation of human rights by the Libyan regime and imposed sanctions, including an arms embargo. Contrary to past decisions on UN sanctions relating to internal conflicts, Russia and China did not delay in voting to support sanctions against Libya, thereby responding, in particular, to calls from regional organizations. More remarkably, in March Russia and China decided not to veto a Security Council resolution allowing the use of force to protect the civilian population, again counter to their usual votes.

Whatever the final impact of the UN sanction, the swiftness of the decisions and their wide international support distinguishes the Libyan response from earlier failed attempts to quickly enforce broad UN sanctions to protect civilians from political violence. For example, in 2007 and 2008 the Security Council could not agree on sanctions against Zimbabwe and Myanmar in response to human rights abuses. The key objections by Russia and China in these cases were that international sanctions were not appropriate to address internal situations. The unanimous condemnation of Gaddafi’s regime, however, contrasts starkly to the previously good relations it enjoyed with many governments.

Prior UN and European Union (EU) sanctions on Libya including arms embargoes were lifted in 2003 and 2004, after Libya announced that it had ended its nuclear, biological and chemical weapon programmes and had agreed to compensate the families of those who died in Libyan acts of terrorism. Libya’s return to the international community was welcomed owing to its oil resources, its geographical position as a buffer against unwanted migration from Africa to Europe and its potential role in fighting al-Qaeda related groups.

However, part of the process of inclusion was acceptance of Libya as a buyer of arms, which has implicated the supplier countries in the sustained oppressive military rule. After more than a decade of being cut off from arms supplies, Libya was expected to spend billions of dollars to modernize parts of its large arsenal of outdated arms. In anticipation to a lucrative market, many companies eagerly competed to supply arms to the wealthy state. In November 2010 the Libdex 2010 arms fair in Tripoli reportedly attracted 100 companies from at least 24 countries. Such sales efforts were often politically supported, with the leaders of France, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom visiting Libya accompanied by representatives of arms companies. Competing with several EU countries, Russia laboured to sell combat aircraft and advanced S-300 long-range air defence systems and clinched deals for the overhaul of tanks and fast attack craft.

Despite EU embargoes and arms supply restrictions having been imposed following human rights abuses in, for example, China, Myanmar and Zimbabwe, several EU states have until now seemingly overlooked Gaddafi’s 41-year track record as an authoritarian and unpredictable ruler with a well-documented lack of respect for human rights. 

Although Italy is now a main base for operations against Libya, it had previously cornered the Libyan market for advanced border security and surveillance equipment. French President Nikolas Sarkozy was one of the first to reverse his position from actively supporting arms sales to denouncing the regime and calling for military action. This decision came immediately after the return from Libya of the last French engineers who had been working on military contracts with Libya. French Rafale combat aircraft, which France had been eagerly trying to sell to Libya, have now bombed Libyan howitzers, which an Italian company had planned to refurbish under a contract signed in 2010. The UK, also at the forefront of the military action against Libya, marketed advanced Jernas short-range air defence systems and supplied an advanced communication system for Libyan T-72 tanks which are now being targeted by UK combat aircraft. Over half of the exhibitors at Libdex 2010 were from the UK.

Libya has also procured large quantities of small arms and light weapons. These are likely to proliferate throughout Libya, prolonging the violence, or they may leak to conflicts or armed groups elsewhere. In 2007–2008 Ukraine supplied over 100 000 rifles to Libya. Russia reportedly signed a major contract for small arms in 2010 and probably also delivered several compact Igla-S advanced anti-aircraft missiles. In 2009 an Italian company supplied about 10 000 handguns, and authorities in Belgium allowed the supply of a first small batch of high-tech rifles. The latter argued that the weapons were intended for use by Libyan troops protecting humanitarian aid convoys to Darfur. The UK did not allow an arms dealer to export 130 000 Kalashnikov rifles because of the risk that they would be diverted to Darfur, but it allowed the marketing of sniper rifles to Libya.

Despite the relentless sales efforts by arms companies, Libya held back on contracts for new major arms. Therefore, it is possible that restraint in supplies of major arms may not have stopped the current bloodshed.

However, it can also be argued that the eagerness of many states to supply weapons and so-called security equipment—symbols of power and tools of repression—signalled support of Gaddafi’s regime. Furthermore, if the violence had started later or if suppliers had succeeded earlier in convincing Gaddafi to procure advanced arms, the presence of these weapons in Libya could have complicated the decisions about and enforcement of the current UN sanctioned actions against Libya. In particular, if Russian S-300s and British Jernas Surface to Air Missile systems had been delivered, they would have been major obstacles in enforcing the no-fly zone.

Soon after the First Gulf War, the international community reviewed their arms trade policies, realizing that supplying arms to Iraq may have strengthened Saddam Hussein’s belief that he could invade Kuwait without punishment. Guidelines for arms exports were formulated, and transparency in international arms flows increased. The role of arms supplies to Libya in the present conflict must be similarly examined. The swiftness with which an arms embargo was imposed as a first action is encouraging. However, to inform the debate on arms trade controls, a critical evaluation of arms supply policies towards Libya is paramount in order to assess how such policies risk emboldening authoritarian regimes and how commercial and national interests may blind governments to the repercussions involved in arms trade.


Pieter D. Wezeman is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme.