Arms trade in the real world

Recently, the Dutch parliament and government had their annual debate on arms export policies of the previous year. Although the debate is supposed to include an evaluation of individual arms trade licenses, these were not on the agenda, resulting in a large number of questionable exports not addressed, such as optical instruments, parts for armoured vehicles, aircraft, and naval vessels for Israel, armoured vehicle parts for Colombia, assault rifles for Ecuador, mortar technology for Ethiopia, and more. (See for an overview of Dutch arms export licenses in 2013 the 47 pages list aggregated by Stop Wapenhandel.)

During the parliamentary debate, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that allies are treated differently from non-allies when the application for an arms export license is checked against export rules. Country at stake was Saudi Arabia, the biggest global buyer of European arms in 2012 (the most recent year year for which EU figures are available). From the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia received parts for military simulation equipment, a search radar, and Typhoon and F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft equipment. This was even before the Saudi's joined the military actions against ISIS in which the Netherlands is also participating.

(Cartoon text: “We should not trample human rights under foot.”)

Dutch foreign minister Koenders made clear during the arms trade debate that all arms export licenses are checked individually, but also that a ally meets preferential considerations. Apparently this counts in the extreme for Saudi Arabia, which fails on all relevant criteria when checked against the rules for arms exports licensing. For example, it took part in the intervention in Bahrain against the popular uprising in 2011, it publicly executes the death penalty by beheading for unlikely crimes such as witchcraft, it finances Salafists in a region ranging from Mali to Bangladesh (often with deadly violent effects), it is heating the conflict with Iran, and is allegedly arming Islamists in the Iraq/Syria conflict. But it is rich in oil, it gives space for Western military bases, even after a major withdrawal of US troops in 2003, and is now an ally in fighting the Islamic State.

For allies, the rule not to export arms to countries with a bad human rights record and the risk to provoke or prolong regional armed conflict apparently is of minor importance. It illustrates how arms trade policy still is an issue of power politics. It is not difficult to find more examples in the EU of power politics connected to arms sales. The Polish government recently decided to sell 1,000 Beryl assault rifles to the Nigerian military. The rifles are produced by Fabryka Broni Lucznik, part of the country’s state-run Polish Armaments Group. The company expects to deliver 5,000 more next year and hopes interest for the product is raised elsewhere. To put it mildly, there is friction with human rights in this arms export. Torture is freely used by the Nigerian security agencies to obtain intelligence from suspects. Overall there is a lack of respect for human rights by Nigeria's military and security forces. The Nigerian Premium Times recently phrased it like this: “The Nigerian Police Force is unwilling to shed the dangerous toga it has donned over time as an institution of repression similar to what the Armed Forces of the Saddam Hussein's era were known for in Iraq.”

But help is on its way. Nigeria and the European Union are enhancing cooperation to end the insurgency of Boko Haram. The EU is focusing on human rights and on civil military cooperation training support. This should improve the human rights record of the Nigerian forces. For a start, President Goodluck Jonathan downplays the worries. Human rights abuses are happening but generally exaggerated, he stated, in line with the lessons British comedian Mark Thomas gave to dictators at the Defendory arms fair back in 1999. Deny structural misbehaviour, said Thomas in front of hidden camera's to these dictators, but admit a bit of torture. That is what public opinion will accept. The denial of the Nigerian president however may stand in the way of the badly needed improvements. But the Polish government is already anticipating on them to happen and gave the green light for a massive arms export.

Ignoring export rules can also work the other way around. The French decision not to deliver two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia did not follow from any EU arms export obligation, according to the Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs, because the deal was made before the arms embargo to Russia came into power and there was no obligation to halt it. The French sale however did not fit into the dominant US and European policy towards Russia, pressure on Paris reached a high level and the Elysée jumped ship on the sale. Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian declared that the conditions of ceasefire needed to be fulfilled in Ukraine before the carrier delivery could proceed. Dutch minister Koenders regarded the French decision not to deliver because of the failing ceasefire a new and positive criteria, outside the EU arms export rules and tailor made for this specific case. At the same time, when confronted with supplies of weaponry by Lithuania to the Ukraine, the minister considered this legitimate, because the Ukraine is under Russian pressure. Apparently the risk to provoke or prolong armed conflicts does not count in this case, according to EU policy. It showed again that the EU arms export criteria are used at random, depending on who is your ally and who is not. Arms trade is predominantly part of foreign policy and power politics.

Martin Broek 24/12/2014