The global trade in arms: “a clearly visible dagger in the heart of global sustainability”

26.06.2013 - Pressenza Budapest

This post is also available in: French

The global trade in arms: “a clearly visible dagger in the heart of global sustainability”
Leopard 2A5 tank in a training and demonstration battle. (Image by Photo: Bundeswehr-Fotos)

During our recent visit to Bonn, Germany to give a workshop at the Global Media Forum we had the opportunity to make contacts and friends from many different parts of the world.  Some people we had very little in common with, like those whose panels attempted to tackle how to keep economic monetary growth sustainable, whereas we found our soul mates in those who shared our ideals of humanising the economy, i.e. how to put the value of human life as the central value.

One of those soul mates is Patrick Little, an Irishman living in Germany and about to leave that country after many years to start a development project in Mozambique, much to the delight of our Mozambican correspondent.

Patrick told us of an interchange he had had with Guido Westerwelle, German Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was the keynote speaker on day 2 of the forum; a rather incongruous choice of speaker between Noam Chomsky on day 1 and Vandana Shiva on day 3!

The interchange focused on the relationship between Westerwelle’s neo-liberal  mantra of “change through commerce” (Wandel durch Handel) and Berlin’s on-going policy of armaments exports on a huge scale (“change through arms commerce /Wandel durch Waffenhandel”).

To give some context here is a quote from this article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (a conservative mainstream daily published in Munich, by no means radical but with a solid reputation for investigative journalism):

The turnover achieved with weapon exports from Germany with the official approval of the Federal Government has increased substantially over the last 10 years. In 2002 the volume was €3.3 billion [that’s almost €100 million per day!] which increased to €4.9 in 2003. Then it undulated for a few years around these marks and now exports have reached hitherto unknown heights:  (2008: €5.8 billion/ 2009: 5.0 billion/ 2010: 4.8 billion/ 2011: 5.4 billion [that’s almost €150 million per day, every day, now].”

Germany is the world’s third largest exporter of weapons and according to the 2011 Military Equipment Export Report, of the €5.4 billion in exports, €2.3 went to countries outside of NATO and equivalent countries, such as Australia, and instead ended up in regimes whose human rights records are terrible, such as; Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Algeria, and even to more respected regimes such as Chile where they still send out the tanks and water cannons to disperse student protests.

We have transcribed this interchange between the two and we have given Patrick the opportunity to respond to the Minister.  One note of caution here: this interchange took place in German and this is a transcribed and polished version of the English translation given by the Deutsche Welle professional translator sitting in the translation cabin.  This English text has been reviewed but still may contain a few inaccuracies.

Patrick Little: I’m working in development aid in Mozambique and you say that transformation through commerce (Wandel durch Handel) works, but my concern is about transformation through arms commerce (Wandel durch Waffenhandel) as I think that our work in the field as development workers in the pursuit of social justice and peace is undermined by the fact that Germany remains, year after year, the third largest exporter of weapons worldwide and I’d like to know what you think about this.

Guido Westerwelle: You have introduced yourself as a person working in Mozambique and I’d like to say that I had one of the most impressive visits there in recent years and not only the work which you are doing there but I also visited some other projects, for example the work of the German AIDS foundation. Do you know that this is one of the most important problems there? I have to say that the work you do there is something very good and I’d like to encourage you and I also want to really recognise this and sometimes it sounds easy when someone says, “I work in Mozambique.”  I do not know where you’re working but sometimes it’s easier to say it than to do it. This is also connected to the fact that in Africa now they are writing other stories including economic success stories and this goes also for Mozambique.

I’d like to come back to the point of the weapons and I have to say that we are happy that we succeeded with the arms trade treaty really and that it has been adopted in the United Nations. This is really a big step forward. We would have wished to get more.  We wanted to get more but after many years of failure it’s a big success and some weeks ago I belonged to the first signatories of the arms trade treaty which will implement global rules for the treaty of arms including for example also the fact that vagabonding(?) arms should not cause more uncertainty in the world and this is one of the important tasks which has been achieved there.

Now referring to international policy, first of all I’d like to introduce doubts into the statistics that you mention.  The question is not what volumes we are exporting but the decisive thing is what we are exporting to whom. Germany is an exporting country but if we see the share also of overall exports in Germany in 2011, for example, we have the lowest share of arms exports here compared to general exports in Germany.  I think it’s since 10 years.  So it was lower than in 2002.  So we have also to discuss very clearly what is being exported.

One example, if a country like Saudi Arabia is all of a sudden in the newspapers – because there is a co-operation with Germany – then people can say, “How can it be possible?” But you can also take a closer look at what is being exported.  And what has been published here is for example the safeguarding of a border so therefore I’d like to recommend not to just value these things superficially and then express your opinion but it’s important to get into details otherwise you don’t do justice to these things.

When I made my visit in 2010 for the first time to the King of Saudi Arabia he told me in a long conversation that he was concerned about the borders especially in Yemen and that there could be an influx of terror and terrorism and you know that this is really a danger in the northern part of Yemen.  So, is it a legitimate interest to secure the border, or not?  I think it’s absolutely a legitimate interest and I think if you talk about these questions you need to have a closer look.

Is it a legitimate interest for example to cooperate with Israel regarding cooperation of arms? There have been a lot of articles on this subject and I can’t talk about the details as you know that since the establishment of the Federal Republic we have to maintain secrecy in these matters. But I think it’s a legitimate interest of Israel in a situation where Israel has a lot of concerns regarding their safety and existence that Israel is armed correspondingly and can also defend correspondingly. So therefore we have to talk about every individual thing before we make general prejudiced statements and surf on the wave of criticism.

It’s no use to discuss about these things in an undifferentiated way as there are some legitimate interests. We also have legitimate interests not only our allies, and we have also cooperation with secret services and we think that the two terror attacks that were planned in Germany were luckily prevented but this was not a success of our national investigation alone. In Bonn we have found a bomb in a bag that was found in time and did not explode (something incoherent). 

it’s no use to ignore the legitimate interest generally and therefore I’d like to recommend you, in terms of security policy, to really have a very balanced point of view as you cannot for example deny other countries the right to defend themselves because many countries and many civil societies are not so peaceful in many regions of the world and unfortunately we have war and we have also military aggression and military aggression is often also the political means which we have to overcome.

Here is the response that Patrick Little was unable to give at the time but we think valuable to publish.

Dear Dr Westerwelle,

I thank you once again for taking the time to address the Global Media Forum in Bonn on June 18th. As I said, I listened intently to your statements concerning Germany’s contribution to making the world a better place and felt impelled to ask if ‘Wandel durch Handel’ (transformation through trade) also applied to ‘Wandel durch Waffenhandel’ (transformation through trade in armaments).

I have now had the opportunity to study the transcript of your reply and would like to address certain points you so eloquently made.

In your answering remarks you commended those who dedicate their lives to working in places such as Africa and said you would like to encourage us. You then went on to speak about the UN Arms Treaty that was formulated earlier this year. On close inspection, I must admit that I do not find this very encouraging; it simply reiterates that the parties to this treaty agree to play by the rules that have been in place for decades and have proven impotent in preventing the dramatic spread of armaments throughout the world which fuel the countless wars we have experienced in our own lifetimes (I note that we were both born in 1961).

Your focus then moved to the statistics. The bottom line here is that, according to the numbers released by the government of which you are a leading member, exports in armaments increased from ca. €3.3 billion in 2002 to €5.4 billion in 2011. This now amounts to almost €150 million every single day, day in, day out. No Sundays off! This is a staggering figure, not only in terms of the tools of destruction of life and creation but in terms of what that money could be used for in the service of the most vulnerable sisters & brothers throughout the world. If ever there was a clearly visible dagger in the heart of global sustainability, this is it.

You declare that we must ‘do justice’ to the facts. Yes, let’s look at justice and truth for a moment. Justice and truth do not require being handled in a differentiated way. They are absolutes and quite simple. It is unjust to generate business and to spend these vast amounts of money on tools of destruction while there are so many critical issues (pertaining to the survival of our species and our planet) to be urgently addressed. The truth is that we are feeding the monster or our common destruction and invest greatly in explanations to hide our denial and self-delusion.

On the subject of Saudi Arabia (you didn’t mention the tanks) you ask ‘are we to deny them the right to defend themselves?’ Not to deny them the right to defend themselves does not equate to selling them the armaments they desire. Let Germany be a leader in this field, as in so many others; by doing the right thing (i.e. desisting from participating in this pernicious business) we will really ‘en-courage’ our fellow nations, the development workers and those most vulnerable world citizens we attempt to serve in the field.

Finally, please look at our track record with respect to removing military aggression by means of force and allow that to inform your policy formulation and that of your party in the months and years to come.

In my nervousness while asking my question, I omitted to express a very important aspect of what I intended to say; should you so wish, I’m sure there were many capable and eager women and men in the audience that morning who would be only too keen to provide you with assistance in turning this situation around, to the benefit of humanity as a whole, the efforts of German development aid workers in the field and Germany’s reputation around the world.

In this spirit, I send you my best regards,

Patrick Little

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