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One man’s loss…

If you thought that 130 innocent people losing their lives during the recent Paris attacks was bad, consider these numbers: 51,770 incidents, 23,023 injuries, and 12,570 deaths — that was last year’s toll of gun violence in the United States. That’s over thirty deaths every day. Unfortunately, this topic is right back on the agenda again — not just due to what happened in Paris, but also after these repeated mass shootings throughout the United States. However, the brutal truth is that these cruelties actually provide welfare to people on the other side of the world, not lastly to us — the Dutch. Despite being a small country, we’ve been one of the world’s top arms exporters for well over a decade, happily cashing in on other countries’ conflicts. Does that sound cruel to you? Well, as the Dutch version of the saying goes: one man’s death is another man’s bread…

Not that innocent

Hey, not to worry! If it’s any consolation, we deal mostly in bigger stuff — navy ships, parts of jet fighters and combat helicopters, radar and missile systems through which bombs find their targets, and so on. Who needs those stinking handguns when you’ve got those, eh? We’re also a transit port, as this country has really been since the dawn of time; weapons made elsewhere are transported to other countries, mainly through Schiphol Airport and the port of Rotterdam. Most of them are sold to states, but a small fraction also ends up in the illegal circuit, never to be seen again. Additionally, some weapons are sold to regimes that suppress their own people, or to countries that are involved in either a domestic or an international conflict. According to arms export guidelines of the European Union, that’s all strictly illegal, but that sure hasn’t stopped us from exploiting these opportunities, nor was that to be expected. We like to think of ourselves as a stable country just minding its own business in some forgotten corner of the European continent, but looks prove to be deceiving once more, because we actually take full advantage of conflicts elsewhere if there’s money to be made from them — only for us to wash our hands in innocence afterwards, of course.

And then there’s the government. They too — more specifically the Ministry of Defence — are an important exporter of weapons, and they too are far from innocent. Every once in a while, they’ll simply dump their stuff on an online marketplace for military goods, where potential buyers — states, in this case — can place their bids. And yep, you guessed it: they’ll sometimes actually sell to the very regimes that we’re supposed to be boycotting. Hypocrite? Yes. Lucrative? Most definitely! In the current situation, the government isn’t merely the civil market’s referee — it’s also its own. Needless to say, this is the first thing that needs to change if we are to work towards a better system.

Cashing in on conflicts

Tremendous amounts of money are earned in the arms industry every day — that much is clear — but how does the Netherlands compare to global players such as the United States, Russia, China, and others? According to the Swedish research institute SIPRI, we take an all-round 9th position over the last 10 years, and even though we’re currently in 11th position sitting just behind Ukraine, it’s fair to say that we’re up there with the big boys — a rather remarkable thing to be able to say. This is partly because of the formidable work of an estimated 200 to 250 companies in the industry, but in order to fully understand how this can be the case, you really can’t look past the government and the way that they break with their own policy if there’s serious money on the cards. Let’s delve into some of the most controversial deals that the Dutch government struck in the previous decade.

  1. In 2004, the Ministry of Defence sold Dutch frigates to Chile. When these ships suddenly showed up in front of the coast of Peru in 2007, war seemed nearby, and all alarm bells went off. The two countries have been at odds over parts of the Pacific Ocean for decades, but the State Secretary of Defence — and indeed the entire government — foresaw no problems. They later even described the ties between Chile and Peru as being “good” — a serious underestimation of the tension between the two countries.

  2. In 2004 or 2005, the Ministry of Defence sold a large amount of Flycatcher radar and missile systems, 40L70 cannons, and a training simulator to Thales Netherlands, the Dutch branch of the French company, after which Thales delivered 8 radar systems and 16 cannons to Thailand, a country that has been under tension for quite some time. The police acts violently against protesters in the South, to the point where they sometimes injure them so badly that they die — reason enough for the Dutch government to decline some of the requests for arms export licenses. “The licenses that we do provide are for goods that can’t be used for internal repression in the concerning provinces,” said the State Secretary of Economic Affairs. Still, it would make much more sense to not acknowledge the armed forces of a country that violates human rights at all — let alone reinforce them.

  3. In 2005, the Ministry of Defence sold 431 armoured vehicles to Egypt, a country that we had practically boycotted from 1999 to 2003 due to it not conforming to international policies regarding weapon control, but also because of its human rights, which weren’t up to international standards — torture during interrogations, suppression of political opposition, the government misusing its power, and so on. During this time, seven arms export licenses were declined, but as soon as Egypt showed interest in hundreds of expensive tanks, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suddenly deemed the situation to be “positive”, and thus gave permission for the deal to go through — a bit suspicious, to say the least.

  4. In 2007, the Ministry of Defence sold six F-16’s to Jordan. “This delivery won’t cause a disturbance in the balance of power,” said the Minister of Foreign Affairs. However, selling to a country in a region as unstable as the Middle East already goes in against the spirit of the established export policy, and this also set another dubious development in motion, namely that of Jordan selling its own obsolete F-5 models to Kenya — a developing country.

  5. In 2007, the Ministry of Defence also sold parts of the Hawk anti-aircraft defence system to Israel. Despite being an ally, arms exports to Israel had been taboo for a long time because of the ongoing conflict in the Gaza region, but that didn’t stop us from delivering the goods. According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the system only served “defensive purposes”, but the rules prescribe that you may not sell arms to a country that is at war — bottom line.

Again, these are just a few of the transactions completed in the previous decade, but many came before, and many more would follow. Most of these go well into the millions of euros, adding up to an annual total of 1 billion euros for the Netherlands alone — perhaps just a small fraction of the global total of 400 billion euros, but still a huge number considering the modest size of this country.

Destination unknown

The government obviously wants to keep an eye on these exports; that’s why a license is required for each and every export request. The concerning rules are set on a European level. As mentioned, human rights play an important role, as well as international security and possible terrorism threats. However, these rules aren’t narrowly defined, and some countries are much easier in giving off licenses than others. Companies make clever use of this fact. What makes these checks even more difficult is that most Dutch companies make very specialised equipment, which is only later combined to make a weapon, tank, plane, or ship. If such equipment is first exported to another country before it’s put together, it’s virtually impossible to figure out what its final use is. Therefore, it’s very important that these parts don’t fall into the wrong hands. The government acknowledges this fact, but at the same time, it sticks to its opinion that it doesn’t have to like the countries that it does business with. Any form of criticism is refuted by arguing that politicians of other political parties aren’t in the position to judge individual orders — just general policies. Genius, isn’t it just?

In some cases, the weapons we sell are redistributed to other countries — a particularly dangerous practice, since we often have no idea where they might end up. This is why it has become common practice for the government to include a special clause in its sales contracts, which states that it has to agree the resale before it can happen at all. In practice, however, things often go quite differently, and such is the case here. Denying an ally a favourable transaction is easier said than done, and we usually simply settle for what was already agreed to by the two parties involved. As a result of this, we’ve also contributed to a lot of other conflicts around the world indirectly, and unnecessarily so.

Let me give you one last example of this. In 2006, rumor had it that Greece was about to sell four of its Dutch-bought frigates to Pakistan, a country that has been at odds with India over the sensitive Kashmir region for decades. Both countries are in possession of nuclear weapons, and they both carry out tests with these, making things even more dangerous. This finally led to a boycott in 1998, but the Dutch government undid this boycott in 2004, stating the following: “Considering the positive developments in the relationship between the two neighbouring countries, an arms export license to the Pakistani navy could potentially be provided.” I genuinely find it difficult to get my head around this statement, because the two countries continue to have a very tense relationship. Furthermore, the political situation in Pakistan is still very fragile. A large part of its population is downright poor, yet it still spends over 4% of its GNP on the military, the highest percentage of all countries in the region. All in all, more than enough reasons to keep our greedy hands off, I think.

Bridge too far

And so we arrive at the rather cruel conclusion that not only the English, but also the Dutch saying might just be true in the most literal sense. Don’t get me wrong; I understand why industries like these exist, and I can begin to understand why people would want to work in them, but to go one step further — to conclude that there’s prosperity in some parts of the world because there’s war in others — that’s still a bridge too far for me. Frankly, I hope it stays that way. Have a loving 2016.

Many thanks to Stop Wapenhandel for their valuable publications.


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