Europe, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

DISARMAMENT-GERMANY: Weapons Exports – a Political Minefield

Yojana Sharma

BERLIN, Nov 24 1999 (IPS) - As Germany’s ruling coalition meets this month to thrash out a new agreement to restrict weapons exports to regimes with a poor human rights record, reports continue to emerge of secret weapons sales to just such countries.

The revelations, almost daily in the German press, highlight just how difficult it is to conduct an “ethical” arms sales policy when agreements signed by the previous government must be honoured as binding contracts, and when pressure from defence industries and economics ministries overrides moral considerations.

Earlier this month the ruling coalition made up of Social Democrats (SPD) and environmentalist Greens with roots in the pacifist movements of the 1960s almost broke apart over the issue of arms sales to Turkey.

The Green party under Germanys foreign minister Joschka Fischer said the sale of state-of-the-art Leopard II tanks to Turkey broke the coalition agreement drawn up between the SPD and the Greens after the elections last year which banned sales of arms to countries with poor human rights records.

While Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted the ban did not apply to NATO allies including Turkey, the row threatened to bring down the government earlier this month.

In a bid to save the coalition, both sides agreed to negotiate new, binding guidelines to restrict weapons exports that both political parties would stick to. The guidelines are expected to be ready by the end of this year.

The negotiations between the two parties means a whole chapter of the coalition agreement negotiated with some difficulty over several weeks last year will be completely rewritten. One of the Green party’s conditions in the coalition agreement was a more ethical foreign policy and restrictions on weapons exports.

“We are determined to do everything to prevent the trade (in arms) altogether,” said Reinhard Buetikofer, a Green party member.

“The promotion of human rights is weakened when it (the human rights issue) is not taken into consideration in the export of arms,” said Gerd Poppe, federal minister in charge of human rights, and also a Green party member.

While the agreement is being negotiated, a planned visit by Defence minis ter Rudolf Scharping (SPD) to Turkey has been postponed till the end of the year at the earliest.

The Greens have said they want all weapons exports to countries outside the EU and NATO handled restrictively and stopped altogether to countries with poor human rights records. An annual report on the human rights situation in countries seeking arms would be produced by the Foreign ministry.

The SPD is still arguing against a ban and maintains that only those weapons that could be used to perpetrate human rights abuses should be banned. An EU code of conduct on arms sales for example bans the sale of weapons which can be used specifically for internal repression.

Germany, under Fischer, had attempted to tighten the EU Weapons Export Code during its presidency of the union in the first half of this year. The code includes a clear catalogue of countries to which EU members must not export, including countries in areas of tension, countries which promote terrorism and some which abuse human rights.

However, France had refused to go along with tighter guidelines for the voluntary code – many weapons companies in France are state owned.

The EU code adopted in June 1998, aims to use peer pressure to prevent EU governments from competing with each other to sell arms to rogue governments.

Under the code, EU governments agree in principle to consult each other when considering export licences for weapons to countries who have been denied they by other member states on human rights grounds.

A report on the code’s first year revealed that Germany had issued the largest number of arms export licenses last year at 11,400 followed by the Great Britain, which has also signalled a commitment to ethical foreign policy, at 10,385.

According to Green members of parliament this reflects a sales spree by the outgoing German government last year, who finalised a large number of arms sales contracts during the last months in office. Green politician Oswald Metzger described this as “laying a few cuckoo’s eggs in the nest” of the incoming government.

However even as sensitive negotiations to strengthen the coalition’s guidelines on weapons exports are under way, the Federal Defence Council – made up of the Chancellor and ministers of the Interior, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Development aid and Economics, approved a long list of exports, including armoured vehicles for Pakistan which is now under military rule.

Documents leaked to a German newspaper showed that at the same meeting th e Defence Council approved second-hand mine sweepers for South Africa, 32 Alpha jets and 2 second hand submarines for the United Arab Emirates, arms for Thailand, helicopters for South Korea, munitions and torpedoes for Chile, tanks to Brazil and anti-tank devices for Rumania.

Officials close to the Defence Council talks point out that the council did not approve of machine gun sales to Egypt, or a n spy satellite to Saudi Arabia, nor armoured vehicle parts to Vietnam. However it was the arms for Pakistan that raised the most eyebrows.

The German Foreign ministry is now backtracking in the wake of the ensuing outcry and maintains that exports to Pakistan were not part of the package approved by the council. However, the damage to the government’s credibility, already fragile since the Turkey debacle, was done.

The structure of the Defence Council means that any one minister – in this case Green foreign minister Fischer, can be outvoted by other members such as the Economics ministry which generally represents the defence industry and industry in general.

The Green party has been calling for the Federal Defence Council to be answerable to the Bundestag, the parliament since the Green foreign minister was outvoted in the Council on the tanks to Turkey in the same council.

But Scharping said the Greens could not be given the power of veto in the Council. “I’ve also in the past been outvoted in the Defence Council, and so what?” he told journalists recently.

Green party officials say in the past other cabinet ministers had never in a single case overruled the Foreign minister in the Defence Council. “Majority voting in the Defence Council cannot be allowed to overturn basic principles of the coalition agreement,” says the Green spokeswoman on defence, Angelika Beer.

It is unlikely that the Green party will succeed in changing the way decisions are made in the Defence Council, and the timing of a trip by Scharping to the Middle-East has only heightened their suspicions that their coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are not sincere about controlling the weapons trade.

Scharping, currently on a trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is has been roundly criticised as going as an “arms salesman” just as sensitive talks on exports are underway. Amnesty International has criticised the trip on human rights ground saying that prisoners have been tortured in these countries.

Scharping visited an air show in Dubai during his trip at which the Eurofighter (produced by Germany, France, Italy and Spain) is displayed. Germany would like to sell Eurofighters to the UAE. He has denied he is on a weapons sales mission and said it would have been “impolite” not to accept the invitation to the show.

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