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Swiss Step Up Arms Exports, Peacefully

“Tanks to Saudi-Arabia?” Angry protesters outside the Swiss parliament after it took the decision to ease arms exports regulation. Credit: Ray Smith/IPS.

BERN, Switzerland, Mar 13 2014 (IPS) - Switzerland has eased its restrictions on arms exports – in order to save a few thousand workplaces. Critics fear that Switzerland’s credibility as an international peace broker will now suffer.

Switzerland’s army doesn’t go to war – but its military equipment does. In 2011, Saudi Arabia used Swiss Piranha tanks to crack down on protests in Bahrain. Libyan rebels used Swiss ammunition against Muammar Gaddafi’s troops, and Syrian rebels have been throwing Swiss hand grenades against President Bashar Assad’s soldiers.

Only a few weeks ago, videos circulating on the internet offered proof that Swiss sniper rifles where used against civilians on Kiev’s Maidan square. Many died in brutal police action.

"Swiss assault rifles were exported to Ukraine and have now been used against civilians.”

Switzerland, a neutral country at the heart of Europe known for an active promotion of a peace policy in diplomatic forums, is in fact the world’s fifth-largest producer of small arms. It ranks eighth in arms exports per capita, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Last year, 34 percent of exported military equipment consisted of ammunition. Other major exports were fire control systems, weapons and armoured military vehicles. In all 73 percent of military exports went to European countries.

But in 2013, Swiss arms exports dropped from 700 to 461 million Swiss Francs (524 million dollars). The country’s three-biggest arms producers, General Dynamics European Land Systems – Mowag, RUAG, and Rheinmetall Air Defence sacked 415 employees.

The lobby of the 70 Swiss arms producers called for the government to act. It demanded the lifting of export restrictions.

Judging whether or not the Swiss arms industry is on decline depends on how one reads the statistics. Ten years ago, these companies exported less than in 2013 and long-term statistics show that the high export values 2008-2012 were exceptional.

Further, arms exports statistics do not include “special military goods”, a category designed for dual use goods. Under this category, Swiss companies last year additionally exported military material worth 405 million Swiss Francs (461 million dollars).

Dismissing the alarming rhetoric of cuts and a crisis by the arms lobby, the Swiss Peace Foundation (SPF) says the sector is  “ridiculously insignificant”, as it accounts only for 0.33 percent of Swiss exports, and employs less than 10,000 people.

SPF director Heinz Krummenacher told IPS the Swiss arms industry should be dissolved totally or at least produced only for the domestic market.

The Swiss government had tightened export restrictions in 2008. A year later Swiss voters turned down an initiative by the pacifist Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) for a ban of Swiss arms exports. On Mar. 6, the Swiss parliament narrowly gave in to the demands of the arms lobby, and eased arms exports regulation drastically.

Under the former regulation, arms exports to countries known for systematic and grave human rights violations were forbidden. Also, arms exports to countries engaged in an internal or international, armed conflict were not permitted. The new clause will be more elastic.

Now, permits will be denied if there is “a high risk” in the receiving state that the military equipment will be used for serious human rights abuses, if the country is “illegally” engaged in an international, armed conflict or if an internal, armed conflict prevails. The “high risk” provision especially leaves room for manoeuvre.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) assesses risks of human rights abuses in potential receiving states and issues export permits. Alain Bovard, arms expert at Amnesty International Switzerland is sceptical about these investigations.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen how little they help. Despite thorough investigations, Swiss assault rifles were exported to Ukraine and have now been used against civilians.”

In the end, it’s all about how specific criteria are checked and assessed. “The human rights criteria hasn’t always been carefully evaluated,” Bovard says.

Switzerland has been using post-shipment verification clauses to make sure that delivered military equipment isn’t re-exported by the receiving states. In practice, these clauses have often been ineffective.

Boxes full of Swiss hand grenades, which were found last year in the Syrian civil war, were originally purchased by the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, Swiss ammunition was detected in the hands of Libyan rebels that was originally delivered to Qatar. Both countries signed a non-re-export clause.

“It’s illusive to believe that Swiss authorities are able to control whether exported Swiss weapons and ammunition are used for human rights abuses,” Stefan Dietiker, secretary general of GSoA, tells IPS. “Once they’ve left our country, they’re gone, no matter how many clauses the purchasers sign and how many promises they make.”

Besides the material consequences of the Swiss parliament’s decision to ease its arms exports regulation, critics stress its symbolic effect. “The decision contradicts Switzerland’s foreign policy goals which prioritise protection of human rights,” says Amnesty International’s Bovard.

He points to Switzerland’s important role in negotiating and pushing the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). ATT is a landmark effort to regulate the global arms trade, which more than 100 states signed in 2013. The treaty currently awaits ratification. Switzerland has offered to host the ATT secretariat.

“Switzerland loses credibility,” says Alain Bovard. Switzerland, he says, must have stricter arms exports regulation than ATT’s minimum standards demand.

He also worries about the country’s reputation. “Having close arms trade ties with countries like Saudi Arabia, which systematically violates human rights, damages Switzerland’s image.”

Economic Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann insisted through the parliamentary debate that Switzerland would continue to keep up its humanitarian tradition – while not neglecting its security interests. “It’s not about surrendering the protection of human rights for the sake of preserving work places,” he stressed.

Critics like Stefan Dietiker say Switzerland has to make up its mind. “Ultimately, we have to decide whether we want to deliver weapons or protect human rights.”

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