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Why Germany should stop arming the world

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Saudi Arabia wants to buy 800 German Leopard 2 tanks. Photo: DPA
16:34 CEST+02:00
Germany's weapons industry is booming, and even the vice chancellor's attempt to stop selling tanks to the Saudis is a minor concession for the world's third biggest arms exporter. But the trade is destabilizing security.

Germany opposed the war in Iraq and its troops deployed in the Nato mission in Afghanistan were mainly kept out of combat.

Last month's decision to take part in the European Union's peace-keeping in the Central African Republic was made only on the condition that Germany's main contribution be medical transport planes.

But the country's military coyness has not prevented it from selling weapons into the world's war zones – not just as business but as foreign policy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel all but declared her "send guns not soldiers" strategy in a speech at a political foundation event in 2011.

She had evidently decided it would be more politically prudent to arm regional allies than put soldiers in harm's way.

And under Merkel, the arms business has boomed, reaching a peak in 2010, when her government approved arms exports worth a record turnover of €2.1 billion - a tenfold increase on 2000.

Selling to allies - and others

Lately though, German weapons firms have increasingly been selling to countries outside Germany's circles of immediate allies, who may not necessarily share Germany's security interests or its commitments to protecting human rights.

As the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute showed in a report on Monday, non-Nato states are boosting their defence spending while countries like the US and Germany are slashing theirs.

The resulting controversy came into focus on Sunday, when the Bild am Sonntag newspaper revealed that Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel had blocked the sale, via a Spanish weapons manufacturer, of up to 800 Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia - a country with a catastrophic human rights record which sent troops to Bahrain to brutally suppress peaceful protests.

On Tuesday, Germany's constitutional court considered a complaint by three Green party politicians who accused the government of not fully answering a request for information they made in 2011 on a potential deal to sell 200 Leopards to the Saudis.

The conservative half of Germany's coalition government - the Merkel-led Christian Democratic Union – angrily criticized Gabriel's intervention.

The CDU's deputy parliamentary faction leader Michael said that Germany wouldn't have a defence industry if it couldn't sell to countries outside of the Nato alliance.

But the economic value of the arms trade is limited – weapons account for less than 0.1 percent of German exports. They represent around 80,000 jobs. So why has the issue gained such a huge importance for German politicians?

It's not the money

Henrik Heidenkamp, German defence industry expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told The Local the economic value was not the point, but about nurturing Germany's defence industry so that it will be able to supply arms to the German army and its allies.

"Only a commercially viable defence industry can deliver needed equipment to the armed forces in order to sustain the national defence effort," he said.

In other words, Germany needs to sell guns so it can make guns for its own soldiers.

But what if those soldiers then end up facing enemies with the same German-made weapons?

The Heckler & Koch G36 – made in the town of Oberndorf in southern Germany - is the standard assault rifle in the Bundeswehr and several Nato armies.

But in 2011 it was also found in the arsenal of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Many of these have now found their way, via the Libyan militias currently tearing that country apart after Nato's intervention, into central Africa where plenty of Islamist terrorist groups are likely to get their hands on them.

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No one knows how Gaddafi got these powerful weapons, but they were probably acquired illegally via factories in Saudi Arabia, which has a licence to make several H&K automatic weapons.

By the same token, the G36 has found its way into the hands of corrupt police forces and militias fighting a slow-burning war in northern Mexico.

The truth is that once a license has been sold, nothing stops the spread of small arms.

The licence to make the Bundeswehr's last standard rifle, the G3, was sold to at least 15 countries in the 1960s and 1970s - including Iran, which subsequently had an Islamic revolution and began arming groups like Hezbollah – classed as a terrorist organization by most western nations.

In practice, the "stability argument" means selling arms to both sides of any simmering conflict – in the past, Germany has sold arms to Egypt and Israel, India and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey and Greece.

The truth is that nothing makes the world more dangerous.

SEE ALSO: Germany to give military aid to Baltics

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