Weapons exports reveal faults in German system | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 30.05.2013
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Weapons exports reveal faults in German system

Germany prides itself on having "strict, even restrictive regulations" for the export of weapons of war. All the same, German weapons regularly show up in regions they should not be in.

For years, every single government coalition in Germany has stated that the country has particularly strict regulations for sales of weapons of war to foreign countries. Regularly, however, weapons used abroad but "made in Germany" get into the news. People are outraged when assault rifles and other military small arms produced in Germany show up in crisis areas and war zones: after all, the strict rules are designed to prevent German weapons of war being used for repression in conflict areas across the world.

How do these weapons end up in places they should not be? Smuggling weapons out of the country plays a minor role in Germany, even if customs statistics may read differently. In 2011 and 2012, about 5,100 illegal weapons of war were confiscated at Germany's borders. The Customs Criminal Investigation Office (ZKA) in Cologne estimates that only about ten percent of the cases were smuggling weapons out of the country. 90 percent of the incidents involved people caught trying to illegally import assault rifles and submachine guns to Germany.

Initial approval

In fact, if one traces illegal German arms abroad, one usually finds shortcomings in the German approval procedure.

For example, in Mexico, police forces in states which are embroiled in a drug war are considered even by the central government as part of the security problem in their regions - nevertheless they have been issued with German-built G36 assault rifles, which can fire up to 750 rounds a minute. Germany's Economics Ministry, which is responsible for export clearance, in fact sanctioned shipment of the weapons to Mexico - but not to the restive regions. The State Prosecutor in Stuttgart has launched an investigation into the German manufacturer of the G36 assault rifle, Heckler & Koch. The arms company told Deutsche Welle that individual employees, who have since left Heckler & Koch, were to blame for the irregularities.

G36 rifle K Foto: Maurizio Gambarini dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

The G36 assault rifle is made by the German company Heckler & Koch

In another example, in 2011, G36 rifles surfaced in the Libyan civil war. At the time, Heckler & Koch said Libya had never been an export destination, but the rifles had been shipped legally to Egypt in 2003 and the company did not have a clue how they ended up in Libya. Again, prosecutors in Stuttgart are investigating.

End-user certificate

According to opposition politicians, the end-user declaration exporters are required to submit to the Economics Ministry is the main weak spot in the German procedure. Both contractor and recipient are required to affirm that the arms are meant only for use in approved areas and will not be resold without German approval. The statements are never checked, however: the government trusts exporters and purchasers alike.

"The end-user declaration does not replace end-user controls," Katja Keul, member of parliament for the Greens, told DW. According to Jan van Aken of the Left Party, arms exports are not controlled in Germany, "they are merely expertly managed." Both politicians say checks must be carried out in the country of destination.

Who do you trust

Their Christian Democratic colleague Egon Fritz, however, is wary of checks of arms shipments once they have left Germany. It is impossible to keep complete track of a weapon, he says. "It all depends on having partners you can trust and who share the same values."

Jan van Aken Photo: Robert Schlesinger dpa

Jan van Aken says arms exports cement relationships between countries

But Fritz also admits that there are flaws in the German approval system. Weapons sales should be subject to a political evaluation, he says. "I could envision an annual Bundestag security and foreign policy debate aimed at assessing who should be Germany's partners - apart from NATO and the EU - with regard to security policies," Fritz says. "Are countries like Brazil, Indonesia or India partners we trust as much as NATO or European Union states - or is that something we do not want?"

Human rights criteria

At present, that assessment is up to German ministries, with the Economics Ministry at the forefront. Each and every export application is "very closely checked with an eye on the situation in the region" the Economics Ministry says, adding that "regard for human rights and the possible application of the goods" is of special importance. The Foreign Ministry passes on its assessment of the situation in a given country, Keul says, and issues a sales recommendation.

The system is not fool-proof, however. In 2008, the Economics Ministry approved the manufacture of German G36 rifles in Saudi Arabia, although the Foreign Ministry previously attested the country an "unchanged problematic" situation, including a record number of executions, the suppression of women and opposition forces, censorship and coerced confessions.

Van Aken would like to see export bans, to prevent German national interest from having greater weight than human rights. More often than not, he says, it is all about ensuring good relations with specific countries, "and these relations can be effectively maintained by weapons exports."

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