Selling death: an investigation into Germany’s weapons exports – David Zuther, Germany

Bomb-shaped balloons are released before the German parliament to protest weapons exports. Aufschrei-Waffenhandel.de

Bomb-shaped balloons are released before the German parliament to protest weapons exports.
Aufschrei-Waffenhandel.de

Germany is the world’s fourth biggest weapons exporter. In 2013, the German authorities approved the export of tanks, guns, ammunition and other weapons worth a total 8.3 billion Euros. The exports, especially those to ‘third countries’ – those that are neither members of the European Union nor of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – reached a record high. But in whose hands do the deadly products end up? Are the exports made responsibly, with regard to human rights and democracy? This article attempts to investigate an industry that needs war and murder to exist.

“The German government pursues a restrictive, responsible policy on the export of military equipment”

– German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy

From Apartheid South Africa to ‘Auschwitz in the sand’ – the dark history of Germany’s weapons exports

The long history of German weapons exports represents a dark chapter in the nation’s history. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the German industry sold large amounts of military equipment to South Africa – a country that was becoming increasingly isolated in the international community at the time, on account of its racist apartheid policies. German corporations such as Deutsche Bank, chemical companies like BASF and the automobile manufacturer Daimler were some of the Apartheid regime’s closest allies. Even when the United Nations imposed sanctions and trade restrictions on South Africa, German and French corporations carried on with their activities in the country as if everything was normal. In fact, when police opened fire on thousands of peacefully protesting students on June 16, 1976 and killed hundreds, they were using German guns.

In 1988, the Iraqi army attacked countless villages and towns populated by the Kurdish minority, using chemical weapons such as poison gas. In the town of Halabja, a name that became a symbol for the cruelty of dictator Saddam Hussein, up to 5,000 civilians were killed. In the years preceding this massacre, German firms exported entire chemical factories to Iraq. In one case, a chemical weapons factory was disguised as a pesticide production plant. 80% of the components used to set up the Muthanna plant in southern Iraq were made in Germany. Internal documents, released by the German government in 1991, proved that the government coalition was informed about the involvement of a German weapons dealer in Saddam’s chemical warfare program as early as 1982, but neglected to act upon this for almost six years.

Victims of the 1988 Halabja poison gas attack. Source: Wikimedia commons/Sayeed Janbozorgi/Sa.vakilian

Victims of the 1988 Halabja poison gas attack. Source: Wikimedia commons/Sayeed Janbozorgi/Sa.vakilian

A German chemical company, Imhausen, played a similar role in the chemical weapons programme of Muammar Gaddafi, who was dictator of Libya before the Arab Spring uprisings. In the 1980s, the ties between Imhausen and the Libyan poison gas factory in Rabita were revealed. The Rabita site was even nicknamed “Auschwitz in the sand” by the American press – a reference to the Nazi concentration and extermination camp in Auschwitz, Poland, where more than a million people (mostly Jews) were murdered in gas chambers or died as a result of starvation, medical experiments or slave labour between 1941 and 1945.

A deadly business: dual-use products

The German weapon industry’s involvement in human rights violations all over the world in the past could have been grounds to rethink the export policy – but unsurprisingly, not much has changed. One of the most dramatic examples is the sale of so-called dual-use products to Syria. Dual-use products are those that can be used for a civilian, peaceful purpose as well as a military one.  Such deals are controversial since it is difficult to keep track of what actually happens to those products once they arrive to their country of destination.  From 1982 to 2006, German firms exported as much as 137 tons of dual-use chemicals to Syria. Some of these chemicals can be used for both the production of toothpaste and as a chemical weapon of mass destruction. Since 2002, it was an open secret that the al-Assad regime in Syria had stockpiles of sarin and other chemical weapons and was trying to acquire more.  Even when confronted with those facts, the German department of trade (Bundeswirtschaftsministerium) stated that it had good reason to believe the chemicals were going to be used for non-military purposes. Maybe the department changed its mind on August 21, 2013. For, on that day, the regime attacked the town of Ghouta (east of Damascus) killing up to 1,400 people using sarin, a poisonous gas. A main component of said gas is hydrogen fluoride, a chemical of which German corporations exported 90 tons to Syria between 2002 and 2006. Sarin, one drop of which is enough to kill a human, can truly be described as made in Germany: it was discovered during the Third Reich in 1938, by German scientists. The only reason Hitler’s army never used it was that the Allies had warned Germany that the use of poison gas would be avenged by chemical attacks on German cities.

Tanks for autocrats

One of Germany’s best partners when it comes to trading in military equipment is Saudi Arabia. In the years from 2001 to 2014, German authorities approved the export of weapons and military products worth 2.6 billion Euros to the desert emirate13. Among the products sold were Leopard 2 class tanks. This caused public outrage since the Saudi regime used those tanks to invade neighbor state Bahrain in 2011 with the aim to suppress peaceful pro-democracy protests. The deal was cancelled after the German government faced widespread criticism.

Leopard 2 tank: one of the military industry’s best sellers. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Bundeswehr

Leopard 2 tank: one of the military industry’s best sellers. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Bundeswehr

However, Egypt was still supplied with components needed to build tanks until 2012. The contracts in question were enacted between 2004 and 2012 and were worth over 130 million Euros. Egyptian companies used those components to manufacture tanks, some of which were later sold to countries like Algeria, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo – the latter two nations suffering the effects of bloody civil war. However, the Egyptian security forces also kept some of the tanks produced with German assistance. Were the German authorities aware of the fact that those tanks were used to suppress peaceful protests? Yes, according to a statement made by the government coalition two years ago. The German government had been informed about an incident from October 9, 2011, when tanks were deliberately directed into a crowd of demonstrators, killing up to twelve persons. This did not keep the federal government from approving the export of tank components in 2012, after the incident took place.

A massacre in Mexico
In September 2013, members of a criminal organization – with significant support from local police – kidnapped and murdered 43 students in the Mexican city of Iguala (see The Story of Ayotzinapa).

 A mural in solidarity with the 43 kidnapped students. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sortica


A mural in solidarity with the 43 kidnapped students.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Sortica

It was a crime that shocked the world and a crime that embarrassed Germany because, once again, German weapons played their role in the tragedy. The evidence that German guns were used in the massacre was so irrefutable that the human rights ambassador of the German government gave a public apology when visiting Mexico. The problem here is that the weapons should not have reached Iguala in the first place. When the German government approved the sale of weapons to Mexico, it ordered that the arms should not be used in Guerrero and four other states in Mexico notorious for their rates of organized crime. But, apparently, almost 2,000 German guns did in fact come to Guerrero, where the massacre took place. And, in the course of inquiries into the massacre, it also turned out that at least 1,500 arms were sold to Mexico that were not accounted for in the official export data that the department of trade publishes annually.

The dictator’s favorite toy

Electric shock guns are often called “non-lethal weapons”, a term that creates the false impression that they are somehow harmless. Such a description would be met by scorn from those who have had 120,000 volts flow through their body. One man who experienced it says: “You think that your head is going to explode”. The man was tortured with an electric shock gun – the sale and export of which are banned in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and many other Western countries. In Germany, the export ban was barely enforced in the past, making Germany the global number two in the export of electric shock guns (as of 2007, more recent data is not available). They are used as torture instruments in many countries because they cause great physical pain, but leave almost no physical trace. German electric shock guns, given the intimidating name “Paralyser” by their manufacturer, are shipped to Iran, Bangladesh and Georgia. When a German investigative TV programme, impersonating arms traders, contacted “Paralyser” salesmen, pretending to be interested in exporting them to Uzbekistan – a country notorious for its torture chambers) – the companies’ answers sounded like this: “This [sale] would surely be possible” or “Thank you, we will take care of the sale soon”.

Corruption and disappearing evidence

Among the top 10 clients of the German arms industry are Algeria, Qatar, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia – not exactly role models of Western-style democracy. How can such trade happen? It is fact that the authority in charge of controlling weapons exports (the Bundessicherheitsrat i.e. ‘Federal Security Council’), approved a staggering 99.6% of export requests in 2012 and 201319. Even though the Federal Security Council seems to have a laissez-faire approach when it comes to approving export requests, the German arms industry is apparently involved in illegal sales too. In November 2014, German media reported that investigations were taking place into the actions of a German defense firm, Rheinmetall. The company’s employees are alleged to have been involved with a middleman, who paid bribes to Greek officials, who, in turn, hired Rheinmetall to supply expensive equipment. Later on, it was also revealed that similar, illegal deals were also made with Colombia and Iraq. Currently, the well-known German gun manufacturer Sig Sauer is also facing criminal prosecution because Sig Sauer guns have been found in Kazakhstan, a country for which Sig Sauer has never obtained an export license. Also, Indian authorities are investigating corruption claims against Sig Sauer.  On the 5th of March 2015, a major piece of evidence in the case against Sig Sauer, a laptop, was stolen from the German prosecutor’s office.

“Never again” – this phrase has been a mantra of German foreign policy since 1945. German governments have traditionally been restrained when it comes to military interventions due to their shameful past: the deadly world war started by the National Socialists and the genocide they perpetrated. The military-industrial complex in this country has always avoided confronting the ethics of their actions.  It is time we demand more transparency and accountability – especially when it comes to the working of institutions meant to control weapons exports. Last October, Germany’s constitutional court delivered a hard blow in the fight for accountability: it confirmed that the German government is allowed to hold back information about military export requests until their status is decided. In fact, the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, has no power to stop military exports. The decision is made by the government and the members of parliament only have the right to learn whether an export request has been granted or not. The government has no obligations beyond that; it does not even have to explain or justify its decision.

3 responses to “Selling death: an investigation into Germany’s weapons exports – David Zuther, Germany

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