Hopefully the Arab spring will turn out to be a wake-up call for European governments that more needs to be done to avoid the risk of weapons supplied with their consent being used against peaceful protesters, as happened on the streets of numerous towns in MENA this year.
This quote comes from a report published in November 2011 called ‘Lessons from MENA. Appraising EU transfers of military and security equipment to the Middle East and North Africa. A contribution to the review of the EU Common Position.’
Edited by An Vranckx, Frank Slijper and Roy Isbister, this report sheds a light on the recent EU arms transfers in regard to the uprisings that are deeply changing the political situation in the Middle East and in north Africa. Intended to contribute to the revision of the EU Common Position on arms transfers - that each member states has to implement end 2011-beginning 2012, this report is particularly interesting for those who are interested in the Belgian arms transfers.
Here is the report in full and the parts that will need more focus on this website (emphasis are all mine).
Ideas and opportunities to improve the existing system
The Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI), which consider six dimensions of governance (voice and accountability; political stability and absence of violence; government effectiveness; regulatory quality; rule of law; and control of corruption) may be of interest here. Looking at the indicators for Libya, for example, would have given great cause for concern well ahead of the Arab Spring.
A governance criterion might also be of assistance in the context of the message that arms sales deliver about the way the transferring state views the importing regime. Supplying arms can be seen as conferring legitimacy on or at least acknowledging the legitimacy of a regime that may be completely unrepresentative and potentially predatory. Linking this together with the above mentioned list of countries of concern and the application of a presumption of denial for those countries would help give some direction to the circumstances where this is likely to be relevant.
A further improvement in transparency is necessary, not least so that regional experts could have better information on which to base any approach to governments regarding the wisdom and risks of actual or proposed transfers. EU Member States should be giving greater detail on the proposed end-users of the items being licenced, the quantities of equipment being delivered and on transfer policies and their implementation to specific states.
Lessons from the Arab Spring
Another pattern that seems to be emerging out of the response to the Arab Spring relates to the issue of the tension between applying the restrictive criteria and promoting economic and strategic interests. Most obvious is the way in which business with the largest customer in MENA, Saudi Arabia, seems to be business-as-usual, despite, for example, their willingness to crack down hard upon internal dissent, their dispatch of armoured vehicles to Bahrain and their earlier use of aircraft in Yemen.
Selected EU transfers of major conventional weapons to MENA (2001-2010)
EU arms transfer control since the Arab Spring
In March 2011 the Dutch Government declared that it had decided to hold - but not process - military exports to Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, “until there is reason for reconsideration”. Licences that had already been issued in the past and were up for renewal, however, would not fall under that rule, but would receive “critical screening”, and no export licences whatsoever would be granted for Iran, Syria and Libya. Video footage from the streets of Manama, the capital of Bahrain, showed security forces deployed armoured vehicles of the type that had been transferred to that Gulf state from Dutch army surplus, as part of the €30 million deals that the Netherlands and Bahrain had conducted in the past 20 years. The Belgian armed forces had transferred similar surplus armoured vehicles to Bahrain in 2008.
The upheaval and deployment in Bahrain served as a reminder of risks involved in the transfer of surplus military equipment to other countries. The Dutch and the Belgian armed forces also sold off hundreds of surplus military vehicles to Jordan, as recently as 2010. The Dutch Government admitted it might have miscalculated the risk involved in such transfers, and during a parliamentary debate on arms exports on 24 March 2011 was forced onto the defensive.
Just saying “no” to the Saudis?
With the Arab Spring spreading to a number of MENA countries, in February 2011 the Saudi Government made public protests illegal. The Saudi Interior Ministry in March 2011 dispatched some 10,000 troops to the east of the country, where grievances against the Government ran highest. Saudi Arabia has blamed Shi’a-majority Iran for supporting the Shi’a in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In November 2009, Saudi Arabia bombed Yemen’s Shi’a rebels in the country’s northern parts with fighter-plane and artillery attacks. In spring 2011, the Saudi armed forces supported the suppression of the demonstrations of the Shi’a in Bahrain, who were demanding democracy and reforms. The Saudi armed forces entered Bahrain at the invitation of Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family. Although they did not participate in the actual repression they were seen entering the country at the time of the demonstrations in a convoy of Tactica armoured vehicles, manufactured by BAE Systems in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne with final assembly in Belgium.
Country of ‘five-armed soldiers’?
The Saudi appetite for weapons “made in the EU” does not stop at tanks, planes and warships. Small arms and light weapons (SALW) are also on the top of their wish list: export licences for ML1 and ML2 have been granted to Saudi Arabia for almost €1 billion in 2005-2009 (9.4 per cent of export to Saudi Arabia). Being the destination of almost 15 per cent of all SALW export licences granted during this period, Saudi Arabia is a lucrative market for European SALW producing companies.
A good example of this trend is Belgium, one of the world largest exporters of military SALW. Belgian SALW manufacturers have traditionally relied on sales to Saudi Arabia, to the extent that led a keen observer to assume “Saudi soldiers should be five- armed to bear all the Belgian weapons they bought”. In 1996-2002, Saudi Arabia accounted for 36.3 % of Belgian arms exports, a customer prominent enough to make the seller dependent on the buyer rather than the other way around. As a side effect of the 2003 regionalisation of export control competencies, periodical export reports of Belgian entities revealed that the vast majority of Belgian exports to Saudi Arabia come from the Walloon Region. Since then, export licences to Riyadh have been granted for over €1.1 billion, more than €150 million each year and around 20 per cent the value of Belgian export licences. These supplied the Saudi forces with the different generations of military SALW that FN Herstal has been producing over the years.
Supplying the Libyan stockpile
That ground began to shift after 2003, when Libya announced the end of its nuclear programme, and that it was to discontinue its support to terrorist groups and to henceforth collaborate in the War on Terror. Shortly thereafter, the UN embargo on Libya was lifted, but it took until October 2004 before the EU lifted its own embargo on the transfer of arms to that country. That did not make Libya an unproblematic destination for controlled goods. After 2004, the most serious human rights violations continued to be reported from Libya, as they had been reported before. Libyan indicators for voice and accountability remained among the weakest in the world.
In 2006-2007, the Libyan government successfully imported 100,000 automatic rifles from the Ukraine. In 2008, procurement officials at Libya’s Defence Ministry sought to import another 130,000 Kalashnikov automatic rifles from an unidentified Ukrainian party via a UK-based intermediary. However, the UK refused to issue the relevant brokering licence. The UK embassy in Tripoli reportedly expressed concerns that the Government of Libya might have intended to re-export the weapons to either the Governments of, or armed rebel factions in, Chad and Sudan.
Again in 2008, a Libyan businessman whose intermediary services had been sought to facilitate a ‘procurement programme’ on behalf of the 32nd Brigade signed a contract with a Romanian company for the export from Romania to Libya of 100,000 Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
In March 2009, the Serbian Government refused to authorise a local firm, Zastava Arms of Kragujevac, to export more than €30 million worth of small arms to Libya, on the ground that one of the brokers who acted on behalf of the Libyan government was blacklisted by the UN for having violated the embargo on arms exports to Liberia. Just prior to the uprising, Tripoli reportedly had also concluded a deal with Russia to build an AK103 machine guns factory in Libya.
These efforts to accumulate large quantities of small arms reminded the international community of the support that Colonel Gaddafi was reputed to have offered rebels throughout Africa, in some places in Latin America and in the Philippines. Libyan authorities had repeatedly been caught violating international embargoes, such as by supplying arms to parties in the armed conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Also in Sudan, Somalia and Chad arms had already been encountered that appeared to have been supplied by Libya. Evidence of continuing Libyan efforts to acquire quantities of SALW beyond the legitimate needs of own troops thus refuted the belief that the Gaddafi regime had really broken with its old habit of buying influence among those not easily supplied through the legal arms market.
A FN F2000 assault rifle, in Libya
I decided to quote in extenso the Belgian study case regarding the FN Herstal deal of 2008-2009 because it summarizes it well and bring new details that might help one to understand the startling situation. For more details about the chronology and some documents, see this previous article.
Economic and humanitarian crises legitimate SALW sales
By comparison with the acquisitions mentioned before, the Libyan government sought to buy relatively modest quantities of SALW when it started negotiating a deal with the Belgian Fabrique Nationale (FN Herstal). The company is known for state of the art small arms that do not come cheaply and some of which requires specialty ammunition that is hard to come by on the black market. The client wanted pistols and semi-automatic rifles to replace arms FN Herstal had supplied to the Libyan police before 1985. The client also wanted to procure riot control equipment, particularly FN303 Less Lethal Weapons. By October 2008, the selling order was drawn up for 2000 FN303 semi-automatic less- lethal riot guns – at the time the largest deal for such arms FN Herstal had received, as well as for 367 FN 5-7 pistols, 50 FN HP Renaissance pistols, 367 FN P-90 submachine guns, 367 FN F2000 assault rifles, and 30 FN Minimi light machine guns, all with spare parts, accessories and munitions, at a total value of over €11.5 million.
The company applied for the five relevant export licences for Libya with the regional Walloon Government. The deliberation on the licences was not dealt with lightly. The matter was passed on to the expert advisory commission that monitors Walloon compliance with the provisions in the Belgian arms exports law, which was amended in 2003 so as to incorporate the EU system of transfer control. In February 2009, the advisory commission concluded that with the exception of the FN303, the arms Libya sought to procure presented too high a risk for proliferation beyond the Libyan borders, and thus issued a negative advice on four of the five licences.
In April 2009, FN Herstal approached a member of the Walloon Minister President’s Cabinet and handed over a file with complementary information that lead the aforementioned advisory commission to reconsider the matter. According to the record of the commission’s deliberations, it considered the steps that the Libyan authorities had taken to cut ties with terrorist groups, the warm welcome Colonel Gaddafi had been seen to receive in France in December 2007, and the observation that the US had resumed diplomatic ties with Libya. Apparently, the Commission failed to note the resumed ties had not led the US to authorise military exports to Libya. It did take into account that export authorities in EU countries had recently denied licences for exporting SALW to Libya because they had deemed the risk of diversion too high. The commission had no difficulty to recognise grounds for that last risk assessment, as the UN sanctions monitoring committee on Sudan had reported the presence of Belgian SALW and large calibre ammunition in that country, of a type Belgium exported to Libya decades ago. However, as no proof had been found that the Libyan authorities were directly involved in such re-exports, the commission decided to downplay the risk that newly imported Belgian arms might be diverted into conflict zones. It also underlined the dissimilarity between the deal for 130,000 assault rifles for which UK arms control authorities had refused a brokering licence, and the deal for which its advice was being sought that concerned a replacement of arms that the Libyan police had been using since pre-embargo times. The commission also appeared appeased by the assurance given by FN Herstal that these new arms come marked in such way as to be traceable at all times. Alarms would go off – so to speak – if these new FN arms were to be spotted in another country, a possibility presented as a deterrent to re-exports. But no such alarms would go off if Libya were to re-export the arms that replaced the new acquisitions from Belgium. There is no evidence a suggestion was made to the Libyan recipient to destroy those replaced arms, nor did Belgian authorities announce action to help avoid diversion of the replaced arms. In its final deliberation, as many members of the advisory commission approved of the deal as disapproved of it, no conclusive advice was offered.
Early in June 2009, on the eve of local elections, Walloon authorities were alerted that Libya was considering withdrawing from the contract if they stalled the decision on the export licences any longer. Spokesmen for the defence industry reminded them a Libyan withdrawal could put hundreds of jobs on the line at FN Herstal and potentially affect other Walloon companies. In earlier communications, the €11,5 million deal for FN Herstal had already been presented as a door opener to more contracts with Libya, that would potentially be worth more than €100 million. The communication did not go unnoticed to the Fédération Syndicale des Métallurgistes FGTB, the local socialist union for metalworkers. The union strongly encouraged Wallonia’s Minister President Rudy Demotte to sign the export licences, which he did on 8 June 2009.
The Minister appeared aware that the dire straits of the Walloon economy and its need for industrial contracts could not trump a field of red flags that the advisory commission had raised. He however disagreed with the commission’s assessment regarding the intended users of the arms, and the risk these might divert the arms to Sudan and other conflict areas. According to the Minister, the arms were “intégralement destinés au 32° Bataillon des forces d’élite de l’armée qui est affectée à la protection des convois d’aides humanitaires”. He saw no ground to mistrust that user, as the Brigade is designated to protecting a corridor for humanitarian aid through which the World Food Programme supplied refugee camps in Chad and South Darfur. The Minister appeared unaware that same 32nd Brigade had been linked to a ‘procurement programme’ that British and American diplomats had associated with suspicious movements of large quantities of small arms, which they took to entail a substantial risk of SALW diversion to Sudan and other conflict areas.
The elite brigade may have been designated to protect the corridor from the Port of Benghazi to Al Kufrah in the southernmost part of Libya, and few would oppose feeding refugees in camps or making life easier for those who protect humanitarian convoys on route to those camps. However, it is remarkable that the Walloon Minister President presented an elite brigade of the Libyan army as the future user of anti-riot guns and specialty arms that Libya sought to procure for its police. The 32nd Brigade, for its part, would be unlikely to deploy riot control equipment on missions that stood a serious risk of ambush, nor could such narrowly defined end-use cover all possible future use of the guns. Refugee camps are, by definition, temporary as is the need to supply camps with humanitarian aid and protect the corridors for these humanitarian convoys. These considerations undermine the credibility of the claim that Belgium was exporting to Libya arms that were ‘indispensable for humanitarian missions’, as Minister Demotte had stated.
A few weeks after the Walloon Government issued the export licences, the Belgian federal Conseil d’État put the licences on hold, acting upon complaints filed by the Ligue des droits de l’homme and the Coordination nationale d’action pour la paix et la démocratie. These civil society groups had raised concern about repression in Libya and the possibility that the SALW sold by FN Herstal would make matters more problematic. In order to proceed quickly, the Conseil d’État raised technical objections to the fact that the Walloon Government had issued the licences just prior to elections, when its decisions could no longer be controlled by their regional Parliament that had already resigned. In this way, the Conseil d’État bought time to prepare for a more fundamental decision on the political implications of the deal with Libya, which would eventually lead that Counsel to cancel the licences in April 2010.
By then, the incoming Walloon Government had already issued a new series of licences that allowed FN Herstal to export the SALW to Libya. The repetition of the licence issuing procedure actually caused the licences and their value to be counted twice in the Government’s report to the Walloon Parliament. There is no evidence that Parliament questioned the steps taken by the Walloon Government that bypassed the proceedings in the Conseil d’État. Neither the amount nor the value of the arms FN Herstal actually delivered to Libya have been reported, but evidence that the deliveries took place is recognised in the deployment of some of these arms during the Libyan uprising in 2011. In some press photos, blue boxes with FN303 imprints are seen in ransacked arsenals, and others show rebel fighters holding P90 submachine guns and FN F2000 assault rifles with grenade launcher and silencer. There is no evidence these particular arms from FN Herstal have been passed on to conflicting parties in Darfur or Al Qaeda cells in the wider region. What is beyond doubt however, is FN Herstal arms have been diverted within Libya.
So far, the Walloon government has refuse to get involved in any demilitarization process in Libya. It has also refused to participate in the effort to localize the diverted weapons it sold to the Gaddafi regime in 2008-2009. Nevertheless, the Libyan case continues to be of a certain political importance in Belgium and its outcomes stay, so far, unknown.
The report can also be found on the web site www.conflictresearchgroup.be