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Germany rakes it in shipping small arms out

Ben KnightOctober 21, 2015

New figures show that German weapons exports increased yet again this year, especially sales of small arms to countries outside NATO. Critics say you need look no further for the root of displaced people in Europe.

Irak Peschmerga-Kämpfer bei Mossul
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S.Hamed

Despite its promises to rein in the country's weapons exports, the German government is still struggling to kick its addiction to war profits. The latest arms export report, released on Wednesday, showed that the value of Germany's arms sales leapt to 3.5 billion euros ($4 billion) in the first six months of 2015 - compared to 2.2 billion euros in the first half of 2014. Germany remains the world's fourth-biggest arms exporter, behind the United States, Russia and China.

On Wednesday, Economy Ministry officials argued that the new figure was skewed by a few large deals with long-trusted partners - such as the sale of a submarine to Israel and four tanker aircraft to Britain - and that these contracts were leftover from before the tenure of current Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Branchendialog Rüstung im Wirtschaftsministerium
Gabriel says his hands are tied by old contractsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B.v.Jutrczenka

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Economy Ministry was also keen to highlight the overall figures for small arms, which anti-weapons activists say account for 19 out of 20 deaths in conflicts around the world. These sales fell significantly - from 21.3 million euros in the first half of 2014 to 12.4 million euros in the same period this year. "They have almost halved and are at the lowest level in 15 years," the statement said. Gabriel previously made much of his intention to lower Germany's arms sales, especially to countries that wage war or abuse human rights.

But this is just obfuscation, according to Jürgen Grässlin, an author and prominent German anti-weapons activist: For one thing, he said, the submarine for Israel only accounted for 400 million euros out of the 3.5 billion-euro total. "It's not just old contracts," Grässlin, who has grown tired of the "old contract" excuse, told DW. "It's new contracts."

"Arms exports doubled from 2013 to 2014 under Sigmar Gabriel, and he said then that that had been an exception, and was down to the old contracts," Grässlin told DW. "But he doesn't have to honor these contracts - the War Weapons Control Act certainly allows contracts to be suspended. That happened in the case of a weapons test plant for Russia."

Infografik Deutsche Rüstungsexporte 2014 und 2015 Englisch
The sale of small arms to third-party states has more than tripled

Small arms sales to non-NATO, non-EU countries triple

Government officials insisted that, despite the large total, the actual figures showed a decrease in the most dangerous weapons. "If you look at the report closely, it becomes clear that the total sum alone is not a suitable yardstick for a certain arms export policy," State Secretary Matthias Machnig said in the Economy Ministry's statement. "Much more crucial is the type of the approved military equipment, its use, and the actual country delivered to. Here the government implements strict controls on individual cases."

But one figure from the report not mentioned in the press statement undermines the ministry's moral high ground on small arms. A closer look at Appendix 7 shows that while the value of overall small arms sales has indeed dropped substantially (from 21.3 million euros to 12.4 million euros), the value of those sales to so-called "third-party states" (in other words, non-NATO and non-EU countries) has more than tripled (from 1.4 million euros to 5.7 million euros). "This is the biggest scandal of all," Grässlin said. "This is a catastrophe."

In other words, countries in the Middle East, South America, Africa and East Asia that are either involved in conflicts or have problematic human rights records have been splurging on German rifles, handguns and other handheld weapons. In the first half of this year, Germany sold guns or ammunition to Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Mali, Chile, India, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates (among others). That's apart from the military vehicles, ships, and other larger military equipment sold to Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Russia, China and Israel - all of which are involved in conflicts or have widely reported human rights abuses.

Opposition politicians were quick to underline the contradiction between the ministry's press statement and its report. Greens security policy spokeswoman Agnieszka Brugger condemned Gabriel's "Sunday sermons and promises" on arms exports. "While he sells his apparently strict small arms principles, in flagrant contrast there was a dramatic rise in the approved exports of small arms and ammunition to states outside NATO and the EU," she said in a statement. "Again and again, the government subordinates human rights and dangers to security below the interests of individual companies."

'The core recipients'

Grässlin sees an obvious connection between these arms sales and the people fleeing conflict zones to Germany and Europe. "If you look at where we deliver weapons traditionally, then the core recipients of German weapons exports are the Maghreb states, then Israel and its enemies - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey - and now we can add northern Iraq," he said. "That means we're delivering (a) to crisis regions, (b) to human rights-abusing states and (c) to war-waging states and (d) to dictatorships, all of them in a tightly packed space, and all of them hostile to each other."

Kobane Kurden Peschmerga Kämpfer 08.11.2014
Peshmerga fighters in northern Syria received German guns last yearImage: Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, it's not all Germany's fault: After all, the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain all exports weapons to the Middle East, too, supporting different sides. "Look at Syria - the Russians are supplying Assad, the Americans are supplying the rebels fighting Assad, and the Germans are supplying arms to the Peshmerga," Grässlin said.

Syria has traditionally been one of the biggest buyers of weapons. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Germany delivered nearly 13 million euros in weapons to Syria between 2002 and 2013 - mainly tanks, chemical agents and small arms. In 2014, Germany also delivered 8,000 Heckler & Koch G36 and G3 assault rifles to Peshmerga fighters in Syria. "And now we're surprised that these weapons get used," Grässlin said. "And the people flee the use of these weapons and the dictators, and they end up, absurdly enough, in the country where the weapons were made that were used to repress their people. That's why I say: If you sow war weapons, you reap war refugees."

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