Governments should track controversial arms trade

mei 2019

Governments should track controversial arms trade

By: Michel Riemersma

9 May 2019

EU member states disagree on whether Saudi Arabia, the leader of a coalition responsible for fighting a devastating war in Yemen, should be eligible for buying European arms. The Saudi-led coalition is involved in severe human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law, through the starving of the Yemeni people. But the France Defence Minister buried her head in the sand when she confirmed early May that France will send a new arms shipment to Saudi Arabia: “As far as the French government is aware, we have no proof that the victims in Yemen are the result of the use of French weapons”.

The Belgian government also turns a blind eye on the conflict by stating that it has no capacity to identify end-users for its export licenses and that it has no knowledge of Belgian arms being used by Saudi forces fighting in Yemen. In April, however, Profundo researchers participated in the Belgian #EUarms bootcamp, organised by Lighthouse Reports and Bellingcat above a cafe in Brussels. In cooperation with Belgian journalists from Knack, Le Soir and VRT, the bootcamp investigated the sales of Belgian arms across the world, including to Saudi Arabia. In a mere two weeks and using open-source intelligence the bootcamp tracked and traced a selection of Belgian armaments supplied to the conflict in Yemen, to criminal organisations in Mexico and to the repressive regime of Bahrain.

Meanwhile, the German government has decided to stop granting licenses for arms export to Saudi Arabia. This move was not only met with resistance by France and the UK, but also by airplane and weapons manufacturer Airbus. This company is even considering legal action against Germany for not being allowed to export a border control system to Saudi Arabia: “The border system for Saudi Arabia consists of radars, drones and command posts for guards”. The Belgian arms bootcamp did show, however, that, the Saudi-Yemen border is blurred and the weapon systems deployed for border control can easily be used for action across the border. This is especially relevant for mobile weapon systems like drones.

While the European countries struggle with their facilitation of the war in Yemen, the United States’ government seems to have no problem with arming the Saudis. In April, the US even announced its decision to withdraw from the UN Arms Trade Treaty that is supposed to regulate arms transfers to prevent human rights violations and armed conflicts. This withdrawal makes it even more likely that the US will be used as a hub for European arms transfers.

The FN Herstal case, researched by the Belgian #EUarms bootcamp, shows that via the US Foreign Military Sales program European arms already end up in conflict areas. Small firearms produced by FN Herstal are also used by Mexican drug lords. Especially for arms producers with a US subsidiary, like FN Herstal, it will become easier to export arms to Mexico, Saudi Arabia and other controversial destinations.

Arms trade is detrimental to sustainable development. While one of the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions is to reduce illicit financial and arms flows by 2030, the arms industry also poses a serious threat to other SDG goals. Ongoing investments in arms trade have a double impact. Firstly, by attracting investments that could have been used otherwise in achieving economic development. Secondly, by producing lethal products that deprive affected populations of many basic needs.

If the European Union wants to promote peace and sustainable development in the world, it should expect its member states to implement and enforce the EU Common Position on Arms Export Controls in a coherent way. Industry interests, such as those of Airbus, should not overrule concerns regarding human rights and humanitarian law. EU member states cannot use a lack of knowledge as an excuse, they should be able to perform better due diligence than a small group of researchers and journalists gathered above a Brussels’ cafe.


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