Arms deal with Thailand a novelty in reporting

Last week the Dutch government introduced a novelty in its reporting system on arms exports. It sent a letter to Parliament, notifying an export licence recently granted for fire control equipment with destination Thailand. Under the new system the government will inform Parliament within two weeks of any export licence granted worth two million euro or more, for all destinations apart from EU/NATO, Japan, Switzerland, New Zealand and Australia. The notification includes the government’s assessment of the export criteria. Parliament has no power to reject export licences, but it can raise questions.

The notification sent to the Tweede Kamer on 12 April 2012 concerns a 10.3 million euro licence granted on 4 April for fire control systems for three Khamronsin-class patrol vessels of the Thai Navy, which are currently being modernised. Thales Nederland had already provided combat systems when the ships were delivered in the early 1990s.

Thales has close ties with the Thai armed forces in general, including the army.

Dutch authorities have no problem with this navy deal, though they acknowledge that potential deals with the Thai army could be problematic as it has been implicated in the violence which rocked Bangkok in May 2010. Thai troops stormed an encampment occupied by anti-government protesters, unleashing a wave of violence across the capital and other parts of the country. At least five demonstrators and an Italian journalist were killed in the military operation.

Until very recently however, deals with the army have been no problem either, with Thales upgrading Thai air defences.

Regarding the sore relation with Cambodia the Dutch government maintains an opportunist approach: both countries need each other so badly that they won’t consider going to war. Well, actually they were at war last year – at least if you consider cluster bombing the border area and causing thousands to flee, as an act of war.

Looking at the sustainable development criterion (criterion 8) of the EU Common Position on arms exports, The Hague wrongly thinks that it is irrelevant in this deal as Thailand is not a low-income developing country. This however is contradicted by the EU’s User’s Guide to the Common Position, which arms control officials are supposed to consult when dealing with export licences. The User’s Guide says on criterion 8 that: “…a priori Criterion Eight applies to exports to all recipient countries without any distinction.” Especially when you see that Thailand’s military budget has increased more than 80 percent since 2004 (in constant values, corrected for inflation and exchange rate changes) criterion 8 is very relevant here in terms of the relation between military and socio-economic spending..

The new notification system is some step in the direction which the Campagne tegen Wapenhandel proposed in a 2009 briefing aiming at a stronger parliamentarian role in the arms exports process. The new system is contributing to transparency, a priority of the Dutch government, according to its response to recent SIPRI figures.

Athough transparency in itself will not reduce arms exports, it is a necessary precondition for democratic control.

By the way: the US government – the most transparent one in terms of arms control – is trying to reverse their decades old policy of informing Congress in advance of upcoming deals. Interestingly, pro-Israeli groups seem most worried about the change as previously Congress played a role in debating arms sales to potential adversaries of Israel, such as Saudi-Arabia.

[FS, 20 April 2012]

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