German arms export policy condemned by church organization | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.12.2018
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German arms export policy condemned by church organization

The German government is not keeping its promises of restricting arms exports to countries fighting in Yemen, a church organization has said. Arms firms are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia via foreign subsidiaries.

A German church organization representing both the Catholic and Protestant churches has condemned the country's arms exports, as criticism mounts of Angela Merkel's decision to allow old Saudi weapons orders to be fulfilled, despite a recent promise to put exports to Saudi Arabia temporarily on hold.

"Contrary to all its statements, we cannot see that the government has recognized the seriousness of arms export policy questions," the Berlin-based Joint Conference Church and Development (GKKE) said in a statement on Monday, which was issued along with the organization's 2018 arms export report. "The tightening of arms export guidelines promised for 2018 are nowhere in sight."

Karl Jüsten, Catholic prelate and co-chairman of the GKKE board, condemned the exports to belligerents in the Yemen war, especially Saudi Arabia. From January to September of this year, Germany approved arms exports worth €416.4 million ($472.6 million) to Saudi Arabia. These sales meant that Germany carried co-responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemenand the violations of international law.

The German government's pledge to stop future exports, made in the wake of themurder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Turkey, was not enough, Jüsten said. "For that reason the GKKE calls on the government to immediately revoke all permits already made for states in the war coalition, and finally pursue a restrictive arms export policy," said Jüsten.

It remains unclear whether the shipmaker Lürssen will be able to complete Saudi Arabia's order of 35 patrol boats to the Saudi navy, which has set up a naval blockade of Yemen. The news agency DPA reported that only 15 have been delivered so far. 

Deutschland Rüstungsexportbericht der GKKE (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

Prelate Karl Jüsten (right) condemned Germany's broken promises on restricting arms exports

Read more: Germany and Saudi Arabia: weapons for a strategic partner

The war business

Martin Dutzmann, Jüsten's Protestant counterpart on the GKKE board, pointed out that German firms were evading the government's arms export controls by moving the manufacture of weapons to other countries.

News magazine Stern and public broadcaster ARD reported earlier this month that German defense giant Rheinmetall was still delivering heavy munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates via subsidiary companies in South Africa and Italy. "We appeal to the government to close the regulation gaps in export law," Dutzmann said.

The investigations found that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had bought several thousand MK80 bombs from RWM-Italia and Rheinmetall Denel Munitions in South Africa, two firms that Rheinmetall co-owns. Human rights organizations including Amnesty International have documented the use of these bombs in the Yemen war.

According to Rheinmetall conference call transcripts quoted by Stern, the company's CFO Helmut Merch told a bank analyst in mid-November that the sales, worth over €100 million ($113 million) a year, would not be affected by Merkel's ban on exports to Saudi Arabia. According to media reports, the state-owned Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI), whose CEO is former Rheinmetall executive Andreas Schwer, is currently trying to take over shares in the South African Rheinmetall subsidiary.

The GKKE also accused the coalition government of failing to follow up on its promise to restrict arms sales to so-called "third states," in other words, countries outside the European Union and NATO.

Though there has been a significant drop in small arms sales to third states this year, which the GKKE welcomed, the organization pointed out that 60 percent of the total approved arms exports still went to third states in the first half of 2018 — the same proportion as in 2017.

What can the government do?

The GKKE also rejected the argument that the global nature of the arms industry made controlling exports impossible. "If it really wanted to pursue a restrictive arms export policy, it could do it," said Max Mutschler, the GKKE's arms export specialist.

Yemen Sanaa (picture-alliance/Photoshot/M. Mohammed)

The United Nations has said Yemen is on the brink of the worst famine since World War II

He offered some suggestions: arms exports to third states could be banned, with permits only granted in special, expressly stated circumstances, such as to support United Nations missions. Another option would be to make legally binding the political principles that guide the German government when granting arms export permits, and which, Mutschler said, are "very good."

Katja Keul, arms policy spokeswoman for the Green party, also believed there was plenty the German government could do: for instance, German citizens can be required to get a permit to travel abroad to consult or advise a foreign arms company. "The Americans regulate this," she told DW. "American citizens from arms companies are forbidden from switching to foreign firms. And Rheinmetall is exploiting this gap massively."

But Joachim Pfeiffer, economic spokesman for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the Bundestag, argued that the arms sales for Saudi Arabia are still important for Germany. "I think it's wrong and dangerous to break off all communications and then to unilaterally withdraw approved arms exports," he told DW in an email. "Germany would be shooting itself in the foot and would lose credibility. Saudi Arabia remains an important strategic pillar in the Middle East. ... The West cannot afford to easily give up its influence on states in the Middle East. Other countries, like Russia, are always ready to fill that gap."

Keul didn't buy this. "Even the chancellor isn't claiming anymore that Saudi Arabia is an important strategic partner," she said. "We can see that from the fact that they're saying they want to be more restrictive. It's become clear that a strategic partnership, in the sense that they want to arm [the Saudis] isn't really productive." 

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