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Arms deals raise human rights questions

Statement by Michael Bauer

15.07.2011 · The Local

Arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Angola have sparked widespread outrage in Germany and highlighted the country's emergence as the world's third-largest weapons exporter. But is Berlin guilty of hypocrisy or just poor political judgement?

Last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition came under fire for a deal to supply 200 Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia despite its questionable human rights record.

And on Wednesday the German government's arms export policies came under further scrutiny after Merkel offered to sell Angola, which also has a muddled rights record, several patrol boats.

Although Germany's defence industry has long been a big earner, many media commentators and politicians – both in the opposition and those loyal to Chancellor Angela Merkel – say the deals are not appropriate for a country purporting its foreign policy is dictated by moral considerations.

“It shows that there is no red line any longer for the federal government in Middle East policy,” said Jürgen Trittin, the Green party’s parliamentary leader, when referring to the Saudi tank sale this week.

But Germany has been selling armaments to countries with questionable human rights records in the Middle East and elsewhere for years. So why the sudden political brouhaha over weapons deals with Saudi Arabia and Angola?

It’s a perfect storm of bad timing, an awful communications strategy and a burgeoning weapons industry that’s looking beyond the West to make money, arms experts told The Local on Thursday.

A weapons power

More than six decades after World War II, Germany has quietly become a major weapons exporter, with its sales growing to about 10 percent globally. That puts it behind only the United States and Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which studies the weapons trade.

And because the Bundeswehr, like other European militaries, is shrinking, Germany looks set to export even more arms in an effort to maintain its burgeoning armaments industry.

“If you want to keep that industry healthy, you have to go looking for exports to some extent,” said SIPRI arms industry expert Siemon Wezeman. “But that can create problems like these.”

Some observers have pointed out the apparent disconnect between Germany's moralizing approach to NATO's military mission against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and the decision to sell tanks to the repressive Saudi regime.

But the German government's ham-fisted approach to foreign policy is more to blame than any blatant hypocrisy, said Michael Bauer, a security policy expert at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Germany has long claimed it won’t export weapons to conflict regions, and arms deals are sanctioned on a case-by-case-basis by the Federal Security Council, which is made up of leading officials from the government. This policy was reinforced by the country's centre-left government from 1998-2002 and has been publicly supported by Merkel's current administration.

So it’s all the more inexplicable that government has hesitated even to confirm the sales to Saudi Arabia officially, though Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière has called the country an “ally of the West” and key to stability in a turbulent region.

“They refuse to comment on the reports of these sales,” Bauer said. “If they had been willing to take on the debate and justify why they had been willing to sell tanks to Saudi Arabia, we might be in an entirely different situation.”

Human rights worries

Though Saudi Arabia has been the recipient of light weapons exports from Germany for years, the rise of the so-called “Arab Spring” democracy movements in neighbouring countries has spawned serious questions about human rights in the Middle East.

“You have to take this in the proper context. There’s the crackdown on the protest movements in Bahrain that the Saudis are involved in. It’s being argued that you should not support a government that’s using military force,” he said.

The same questions are being raised about Angola, where Germany is offering to ship up to eight patrol boats. There, the government, flush with oil money, has a reputation for being intolerant of political opposition.

A perception of secrecy doesn’t help matters – although Germany releases a report on arms sales each year, individual deals aren’t generally announced as they happen. And the industry is less transparent than in neighbouring countries like Britain, where there are regular reports on sales being made.

So what does the controversy mean in the long run? It may be too early to tell.

In the short-term, the tank deal to Saudi Arabia could be torpedoed if the pressure against government leaders builds up enough. The government could also become more secretive in its weapons dealings with foreign countries.

Or, as Bauer suggests, rigorous debate could lead to more transparency and involvement of parliament.

“It’s always helpful to have more transparency. Perhaps you have to change the decision-making process and more closely involve the Bundestag in the process,” he said.

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