No lessons learned?

2011 obviously was a remarkable year, with the Arab Spring dominating world politics. Honouring those who went on the streets and sometimes risked their lives to speak out against their undemocratic, repressive and corrupt leaders, Time magazine made ‘The Protester’ person of the year.
The protests in the Middle East and North Africa and especially their brutal suppression also hit back on western governments usually eager to champion human rights. This year painfully exposed those same governments which previously saw little or no problem in doing business with leaders who only this year became broadly seen as dictators.

Part of the painful exposure was the volume of EU arms transfers to the likes of Ghadafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali and even al-Assad. We saw armoured vehicles on the streets of Manama to suppress demonstrations – the same vehicles the Dutch and Belgian military sold to Bahrain as part of their post-Cold War garage sales. Similarly Austria and the Netherlands sold tanks and armoured vehicles to Egypt. Saudi Arabia is best known for its intense arms-and-bribes-for-oil relations with the United Kingdom. Italy was the engine behind the lifting of Libya’s arms embargo and equally saw no problems in modernising Syria’s Soviet-era tanks that till today take many towns under fire.

But 2011 was also the year of the continuing economic and financial crisis. With governments cutting national military budgets, more than ever the arms industry is looking abroad to compensate for lost domestic orders.
In recent years Germany has emerged as one of the world’s main arms exporters, thanks to seriously lowered export control thresholds. The proposed sale of Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia is the clearest example of that new policy line. According to the weekly Der Spiegel, Merkel’s government has also urged Brussels that while addressing export controls, “economic interests” be “adequately considered”.

That virus of weakening export control for the sake of economic interests has infected Dutch politics as well, with industry representatives eager to complain about the lack of level-playing field, echoing that their German counterparts have a competitive advantage. Rather than urging our eastern neighbor to return to its previous higher standards, the Dutch government appears receptive to lowering its own thresholds.

Just before Christmas the Dutch parliament debated the arms export policy, an issue of much controversy thanks to the Arab Spring. Earlier in March the right-wing government appeared conscious of guilt when it was criticised because of major Dutch arms supplies to these authoritarian regimes. The Hague promised reforms to prevent such deals from happening again. Regrettably, the proposed changes appeared little more than marginal in terms of addressing human rights and democratic concerns. A majority in the parliament has since required stronger measures, but the government so far refused to bow.

Instead of learning lessons from the arms supplies to Arab dictators that were removed from power by their own populations, Europe tends to fall back to the old manner of supplying arms to the highest bidder – democratic or not – for the sake of short term economic and political gains.

Of course, there were some rays of light as well. Changes seemingly unlikely to ever happen took place in 2011. Transit of arms through Dutch territory will get some extra scrutiny in specific cases and in case of major export licences parliament will now be informed within two weeks time. Changes that we have pushed for persistently over the past years.
Such rays of light will keep us going in 2012 as well.


Happy new year!  

[FS, 31 Dec. 2011]