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Weapons exports

July 13, 2012

International negotiations are currently underway to regulate the weapons trade. German arms export rules are considered a model of integrity, but even so, there are some dubious deals.

Security conference tackles cash van robberies. A member of the Greater Manchester Police armed response unit with the new issue Heckler & Koch G36
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It is perhaps one of the best-known symbols of peace: "Non-Violence", the sculpture of a revolver tied in a knot standing outside UN headquarters in New York.

The United Nations is a long way from tying any knots in the global arms trade, but internationally-recognized rules on weapons exports may soon become a reality. For the last two weeks representatives from 193 UN member countries and numerous non-governmental agencies have been negotiating the terms of a treaty in New York that would regulate the arms trade. Alfred von Wittke, Germany's representative at the conference, said earlier this week that it was important to agree on a "robust, realistic and effective" treaty.

Calls for a 'golden rule'

Germany's regulations for its arms export industry are considered exemplary by NGOs. Together with other EU countries, Germany introduced self-imposed limits on its arms trade back in 1998. No weapons may be exported if there is a risk that they could be involved in human rights violations or stoke existing crises.

"Non-Violence": This sculpture was a gift from the Government of Luxembourg presented to the United Nations in 1988. The sculpture consists of a large replica in bronze of a 45-calibre revolver, the barrel of which is tied into a knot. It was created in 1980 as a peace symbol by artist Karl Fredrik Reutersward.
NGOs hope for better arms export controlsImage: UN

Human rights groups, like Amnesty International and Oxfam, have urged that this so-called "golden rule" be written into the UN treaty now under discussion. Germany also supports a strict international treaty based on the European model, says Paul Holtom, from the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

"Germany has been trying to get these standards anchored in the treaty, at least to a point," he says. Germany wants more than just the lowest common denominator; it wants standards to be raised in other countries, he notes.

Despite its strict arms export rules, Germany is still among the world's largest weapons exporters. According to SIPRI figures – although these are disputed – Germany is the world's third largest seller of arms, behind the United States and Russia. German battle tanks, large weapons systems, submarines and warships are sought-after items around the globe. The lion's share of German weapons exports, however, is not politically or legally controversial. The goods are mostly sold to other EU states or NATO allies.

Dubious arms deals

More recently, however, a few German arms export deals have stirred up some controversy, including the sale of submarines to Israel, which the opposition in parliament protested against. The dolphin-class ships allegedly are suitable for carrying nuclear weapons. Another deal, which raised even more hackles, was the planned sale of several hundred German "Leopard" tanks to Saudi Arabia.

German "Leopard 2" tank
A planned sale of modern battle tanks to Saudi Arabia has raised eyebrowsImage: dapd

"There is wiggle room within the law – the foreign trade law and war weapons control law – and there is latitude within the framework of the political guidelines," says political scientist Joachim Krause, from the University of Kiel. The Saudi case, however, is an exception, "and the last word on this case has not been spoken," he notes.

There may be exceptions, but the German government is selling submarines in the crisis region of the Middle East and is planning a tank deal with Saudi Arabia, a country with a bad human rights record. Even in a country with such strict export rules as Germany, the definition of what constitutes a crisis zone where human rights are abused is up to the respective government. Many countries have widely varying definitions of what a crisis area is.

"We get the impression that the human rights aspect is frequently a completely secondary consideration to foreign trade or foreign policy aspects, and this must not be the case," criticizes Mathias John, an arms expert at Amnesty International. "Countries that approve such exports must also be held legally responsible."

Israeli seamen sit atop the Tekumah, a German Dolphin-class submarine before a wreath-laying ceremony in the Mediterranean
Submarines destined for Israel raised concerns about destabilizing the Middle EastImage: Reuters

Sanction demands

Amnesty and other human rights groups hope that when the negotiations are finally over, a weapons trade treaty will emerge in which the criteria for the "golden rule" are clearly defined.

"Hopefully, there will be some central office at the UN level to control this, with the authority to impose sanctions if a country's national laws do not allow punishment for breaches of the treaty," says John.

However, whether or not a strict treaty comes out of the New York negotiations is questionable, because the positions among the countries are very different. In particular, Russia and China are more for a "soft" treaty. Even so, experts think some kind of treaty will ultimately emerge, but that it won't have the strict guidelines of Germany and the EU.

Author: Christoph Ricking / gb
Editor: Gabriel Borrud