Arab Spring has not restrained the arms trade

The Dutch arms trade is back with a vengeance. While 2012 was a relatively lean year, in 2013 the export of arms rose sharply again. Large orders were recorded from Indonesia (348 million euro) , Oman (64 million) , Singapore (52 million ) and Algeria (24 million). Furthermore, the current government has no objections to sending arms to dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan. In 2011, in response to brutal repression during the Arab Spring, the Dutch government appeared willing to restrain the arms trade with undemocratic, repressive governments. But three years on, everything is ‘business as usual’ again.

This was clearly exposed during the parliamentary debate early February with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, social-democrats Frans Timmermans and Lilianne Ploumen. Despite strong criticism from the opposition, the government continued to insist that it is no problem to sell military equipment to a dictatorship for as long as it is unlikely to be used in human rights violations. Several MPs argued that military trade to a totalitarian regime such as that in Turkmenistan would be seen as legitimisation, or at least a no-objection, of repressive policies, and thus be a slap in the face to the democratic opposition in those countries. And specifically so in the case of the Netherlands, which indeed proclaims to have human rights at the core of its foreign policy.

Better visible is its strong emphasis on economic diplomacy, which has become the thrust of the Rutte cabinet. A record number of trade missions have been sent out over the past two years, accompanied on many occasions by military producers such as Thales Nederland, Damen Shipyards and Stork/Fokker, and often so on board of warships provided for the occasion by the Dutch Navy to showcase the industry’s potential.

Naval ships also support the industry at international arms fairs, for example at the London DSEi arms fair in September 2013. Thales Nederland could invite potential customers on board of the Groningen offshore patrol vessel to show its latest gadgets. Among the guests at DSEi were delegations from Colombia, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan – all characterised by the British Government as countries with the “most serious wide-ranging human rights concerns”.

Similarly, the Navy offered its support to Dutch arms export with the presence of a frigate and a submarine during the Russian maritime fair IMDS in St Petersburg in July 2013. At a network reception on board the frigate, representatives of the Russian and Dutch government and industry – including Damen and Thales – could meet each other in a proper surrounding.
During the Turkish fair IDEF 2013, Dutch polymer producer DSM Dyneema signed a contract with military vehicle builder FNSS under the watchful eye of Minister of Defence Hennis. DSM will work with the Turkish company on a Malaysian order for 257 armoured vehicles.


All this is reflected in the recently published analysis of Dutch arms exports by the Campagne tegen Wapenhandel [in Dutch]. Together with the report, an interactive world map has been launched to visualise volumes and destinations of the Dutch arms trade over the past decade.

Besides military goods, the export of so-called dual use goods and the transit of arms through the Netherlands is also subject to authorisation. In 2012, loads of weapons and ammunition from various Western European countries went through the Netherlands to countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Madagascar, Mexico and Oman. As for the export of militarily sensitive dual use goods, the armed forces of South Korea and India were the main customers of night vision equipment in 2012.

In this regard, Dutch trade policies are sadly enough similar to other EU countries. Early this year, new figures revealed that in 2012 European arms export licences were issued with a total value of nearly 40 billion euro, of which a record amount of 9.7 billion for destinations in the Middle East, an increase of 22% compared to 2011.

Saudi Arabia, the largest customer of the European arms industry, bought more than 3.5 billion euro worth of weapons. Despite hostilities between Israel and Gaza arms export licences for Israel increased from 157 million euro to 613 million euro, mainly due to sales of light combat aircraft by Italy. Arms exports to Egypt increased by 20% to 363 million euro. Also, the sale of arms to Libya resumed, with a value of more than 22.5 million euro.

“This is a European Parliamentary election year and we are urging all MEPs to show their commitment to peace, security and human rights by ensuring that the report is discussed in the European Parliament. They cannot let growing arms exports to the Middle East go unnoticed,” said Wendela de Vries of the Campagne tegen Wapenhandel.

[Frank Slijper, 17 February 2014]

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