Harry van Bommel and Jasper van Dijk: Arms fair no place for minister as Middle Eastern arms market experiences explosive growth

12 February 2015

Harry van Bommel and Jasper van Dijk: Arms fair no place for minister as Middle Eastern arms market experiences explosive growth

Later this month Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert will travel to the United Arab Emirates (UEA) to participate, along with a number of Dutch firms, in a major arms fair. On purely economic grounds this event would be of great interest, as for export of armaments this region forms an explosive growth market. Despite this, the Minister would be better staying at home. There are already huge numbers of weapons in the Middle East and the painful reality is that these weapons are pushing the region rapidly down into the abyss.

In 2011 prospects still looked good. There seemed a great deal of optimism as a result of the Arab Spring. The people had spoken. Dictators were driven from office.

Little remains of this hope. In Syria a civil war soon broke out, a war which has already cost more than 200,000 people their lives. ISIS violence has spread this war into Iraq. In Libya the dictator Gadhafi was overthrown, but in that country too a hopeless civil war has developed.

This civil war is being stoked by countries in the region. In common with a number of western countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are supplying weapons to armed groups in Syria, while Egypt and the UEA are sending armaments to Libya and have also launched air raids there. Weapons thus supplied easily fall into the wrong hands. It’s well-known that ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq are fighting with western weaponry.

In addition to this, the human rights situation in many countries in the region is abominable. Since the coup of 2013, Egypt has seen a veritable reign of terror. More than a thousand peaceful demonstrators have been gunned down in cold blood. Saudi Arabia is a case apart: an oil-rich country and important western ally, it is also a country which practices the same forms of corporal punishment as does ISIS. For the ‘crime’ of homosexuality, the punishment is death. The UEA too is a long way from granting freedom of expression, and political opponents can expect torture and imprisonment.

There is a real danger that weapons supplied to these countries will be used against their own people, as was evident in 2011. The people of Egypt and Bahrein were demanding more rights and they were cruelly repressed, with Dutch armoured cars amongst the instruments of this repression.

The strange thing about the Netherlands still supplying weaponry to the Middle East is that it is in direct contradiction of the export criteria. Arms exports must conform to certain demands. One precondition is that the country to which the arms in question are supplied must respect human rights, while no weapons should be furnished if this will perpetuate an armed conflict.

It was announced recently that as a result of instability in the region Germany would cease its exports of arms to Saudi Arabia. It would be a good thing if the Netherlands were to follow suit and instead of promoting the sale of arms to the region, place severe restrictions on them. A good first step would be to avoid this arms fair.

Harry van Bommel and Jasper van Dijk are respectively spokesmen on Foreign Affairs and on Defence for the SP. This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, on the 10th, 11th and 12th of February in various regional newspapers including the Haarlems Dagblad and De Gelderlander.

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