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German arms remain high

January 23, 2017

German arms exports dropped in 2016 - but remain at the second-highest levels on record under the watch of Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel. He insists he is doing what he can to limit Germany's war business worldwide.

Deutschland Kampfpanzer vom Typ Leopard
Image: Getty Images/AFP/C. Stache

Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and likely to be announced as Angela Merkel's main rival for the German chancellorship this week, has consistently promised to reduce Germany's arms exports - and at first glance the latest numbers suggest he is not doing that badly.

According to the economy ministry's preliminary stats for 2016, (released somewhat surreptitiously late on Friday afternoon, less than an hour before the inauguration of US President Donald Trump), the value of Germany's military equipment deals dropped significantly last year - from 7.86 billion euros ($8.41 billion) in 2015 to 6.88 billion euros in 2016.

But as opposition politicians and anti-arms-trade activists were quick to point out, that remained above every other year since reunification in 1990, and above the value of arms exports approved by the center-right government that preceded Gabriel's tenure, and who he often criticized before he took office in 2013.

"It's still at a very, very high level," said Paul Russmann, spokesman for the "Aktion Aufschrei" ("Outcry Action") campaign. "It means a record high two years in a row under Sigmar Gabriel."

Agnieszka Brugger, the Green party's spokeswoman for defense policy and disarmament, was not convinced. "I don't see that Sigmar Gabriel's nice promises fit with the ugly reality of his arms export policy," she told DW. "He says a lot of nice, albeit empty, phrases in the press, but a closer look at the current government's decisions reveals that it continues to export weapons to countries where human rights are being trampled on, or that are located in crisis regions."

Infografik Deutsche Waffenexporte

Clever timing and good intentions

As he has often done when presenting such figures, Gabriel began his statement by underlining the necessity of selling arms around the world. "Exports of military equipment that serve cooperation with our alliance partners and their equipment are carried out in the security interests of Germany," he said. "The same is true of exports to third countries (those outside NATO and the EU), with which we contribute to border security and fighting international terrorism, for example."

Not only that, the minister said, not all military exports are the same - some of the sales counted in the statistics go to United Nations peace missions, including armored vehicles for the UN children's organization UNICEF. "A black-and-white discussion about the value of these approvals is therefore out of place, in the face of the careful assessment of individual cases that the government undertakes," Gabriel said.

"Of course you always have to differentiate which weapons are being delivered to which countries, that's what we in the opposition have been doing in the last few years," said Brugger. "Let's take the patrol boats, for instance, that are being delivered to Saudi Arabia - such boats can be used to form a blockade against Yemen - as they have been. So even if you look at the details and not just the abstract figures there's enough to criticize Sigmar Gabriel in his tenure for."

Russmann added that even considering what little military equipment might be intended for humanitarian purposes, "there's always the question of what happens afterwards with the weapons systems."

For his part, the activist professed himself mystified by Gabriel's anti-arms-trade rhetoric. The minister has insisted more than once that if it was up to him, he would limit arms sales only to EU countries and NATO members, and that the German parliament would approve arms sales (at the moment, military exports have to be approved by a secret council that includes the chancellor and her top ministers, including Gabriel). "He really is a minister of contradictions at this point," said Russmann.

Third country sales

The sales to so-called third countries are always the most contentious part of German arms export figures. These numbers dropped too last year: down from 4.62 billion euros in 2015 to 3.69 billion euros in 2016. And the economy ministry was keen to point out that one sale alone - of a ship to the Algerian navy that would be used "among other things for coastguard duties" - represented more than a quarter of the entire sum, and that another sale - of "multipurpose civilian helicopters" to Saudi Arabia also accounted for a big proportion of the overall figure.

Branchendialog Rüstung im Wirtschaftsministerium
Sigmar Gabriel insists he wants to reduce arms sales to war zonesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B.v.Jutrczenka

This, Russmann suggested, was a little disingenuous, given that there are major sales like this to report virtually every year. "These sales are always coming up - they're not a special case," he said. "We had ships to Israel, ships to Thailand. I always think that statement is just a bit of cosmetics - last year it was the tanker planes to the UK."

A table published on the economy ministry's site reveals that Germany's top five weapons customers in 2016 were, in order: Algeria, the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UK - three of which have very poor human rights abuse records. "If you look at the government's guidelines on arms exports, it says very clearly that weapons of war are not to be approved for those countries, unless there is a particular interest for German security," said Russmann. "So that should be an exception, but we can see that exports to third countries remain the rule, not the exception."

Another segment considered particularly immoral by activists is small arms and ammunition - which are responsible for the vast majority of deaths in conflicts worldwide. Here too, countries with questionable records - Oman and Indonesia - appeared among the top five countries buying German.

Not only that, Gabriel had to admit that sales had risen in 2016 by 15 million euros to 47 million euros - though this, the ministry said, was almost exclusively because of sales to "EU/NATO and NATO equivalent countries and was down to higher security challenges - including those of protecting German citizens abroad."

"The government continued its especially restrictive policy on approving small arms in 2016," the ministry insisted. Russmann had a withering retort: "I'd say there was a very big gap between the ambition and the reality there."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight