Latest News Syria: Belgian weapons industry
Profit and Proliferation, Part 2: Will Belgian Arms End Up in Syria?
April 6, 2012
In a post yesterday, At War looked at how legal arms sales by Belgium’s main weapons manufacturer, FN Herstal, became a troubling factor in the Libyan conflict over the past year. Now there are concerns about where those weapons may turn up next.
Does Belgium share any responsibility in trying to secure Libya’s arms? That depends on whom you ask, and what you mean by “arms.”
Belgium promised 225,000 euros (about $300,000) to an international program led by the United States that is intended to secure the loose stock of heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles in Libya. These weapons were provided to Libya not by Belgium but by former Eastern bloc states. In 2013, a future phase of this program could focus on securing small arms, which Belgium did supply to Libya. While Belgium doesn’t exclude participating in it, the Walloon government, which is FN Herstal’s sole shareholder, has categorically refused to get involved. Its president, Rudy Demotte, argued that the problem was exclusively Libya’s and that his government did not want to enter a “neocolonial logic.”
But Belgium could be confronted with another problem in terms of small arms. Many Libyans say that Qatar, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates provided Libyan rebels with weapons during the recent war. Some of these countries are FN Herstal customers, raising the question of whether Belgian small arms, exported to countries that agreed not to re-export them, were nonetheless re-exported.
On Feb. 26, 2011, the United Nations voted the Resolution 1970, imposing an arms embargo in Libya. Nevertheless, in the spring and summer of 2011, Qatar started shipping military material to the rebels in Benghazi. Some of the weapons shipped by Qatar could well have been FN FAL assault rifles produced in Belgium, according to anti-Qaddafi fighters who received them.
Several fighters said in interviews that their FN FALs were supplied by Qatar. Also, a Libyan operator who worked at the Benina airport in Benghazi in April 2011 said he remembered crates from Qatar full of Belgian FALs. Those particular FALs match the weapons sold by Belgium to the Qatar armed forces. It was impossible to trace serial numbers, however, as this procedure requires a special Interpol request. The Walloon authorities as well as FN Herstal declined to comment.
Belgium’s federal authorities insisted they did not receive any re-export request from Qatar, but also said they have no intention to investigate further.
“The Belgian interpretation of the arms embargo is strict: no weapons were to be supplied,” said Michel Malherbe, a spokesman for the Belgian Foreign Affairs. In this interpretation, if the anti-Qaddafi fighers’ accounts are accurate, then Qatar potentially breached the terms of the U.N. resolution, and Belgium’s refusal to investigate is at odds with the position of one of its neighbors.
Switzerland, upon seeing military material it sold to Qatar in 2009 reappear in Libya in 2011, suspended its arms-export licenses to Qatar from July to December 2011.
The European Common Position on Arms Sales, adopted in 2008, stipulates that the selling country has to assess “the existence of a risk that the equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions.” Qatar, according to the Libyan fighters’ accounts, presents such a risk, as it re-exported military goods to third parties without authorization.
As the fighting continues in Syria, this issue could become more pressing. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, the Qatari prime minister, declared on Feb. 27 that he was favorable to supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. “We have to do what it takes to help them,” he said during an official visit to Norway, “including giving them weapons so that they could defend themselves.”
The same position was adopted by Saudi Arabia. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, declared that humanitarian help was “not enough” and that arming Syrian rebels was “an excellent idea.” (On the other hand, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced concerns that arming the Syrian opposition could also end up helping Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups get weapons more easily.)
Saudi Arabia is the second-most-important Belgian small-arms customer, behind the United States. This puts Belgian authorities into a difficult position: “The European code and the new Belgian law we tried to install are clear: we cannot export weapons to a country that doesn’t respect non re-export clauses,” said Sophie Paczkowski, spokesperson for the Walloon Region.
On March 9, the Walloon government invited Belgian federal authorities to ask the European Union partners about the Syrian situation. This request was made ahead of the meeting of an European Union Council Working Group on Conventional Arms Exports on April 26. The Walloon region first decided to suspend issuing new arms export licenses for Qatar and Saudi Arabia. On March 20, however, the region reversed its decision. Until the working group’s gathering, Wallonia will adapt its license policy to the decisions of other European Union countries.
Odds are that little will change after the meeting: no formal decisions will be made at this level. “For questions of this nature, it works more like a consultative body,” said Roy Isbister, from the violence watch group Saferworld. “Countries have an opportunity to ask their E.U. partners what they think about a particular issue, but they don’t have to, and anyway any decision is still then taken at the national level. The problem is that the European Common Position allows for multiple interpretations. It is the selling country that has to assess by itself, following its own interpretation of the criteria, including the risk of arms diversion, when it comes to selling military goods.”
The question remaining is: What will the European countries decide on their own national levels? If the arms licenses to Qatar and Saudi Arabia are not suspended, the sector’s regulations will prove to be no more than empty shells. If they are suspended, FN Herstal loses one of its bigger customers, and the whole Belgian weapons industry is endangered. Regarding Belgian and European arms interests, the Arab uprisings look more and more like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The Walloon region will not be able to indefinitely shift its responsibilities onto its European neighbors, and will ultimately face a critically tough decision.
Photo: Verhofstadt, leader of the European liberals, pleaded for a military intervention in Libya. He is actually pleading for a military intervention in Syria.