Finding Fault with Lax Arms Export Policy of the Past

Sigmar Gabriel, German Minister for Economic Affairs, on the principles behind arms export decisions

08/10/2014 | 11:30 - 13:00 | DGAP Berlin | Members only



Gabriel’s ministry is responsible in the federal government for authorizing exports of military equipment. In his keynote speech on the guiding principles of Germany’s arms exports policy, he made clear that matters of foreign policy and security must take precedence over the interests of the defense industry.

© DGAP/Dirk Enters

Already before the government’s decision to deliver weapons and equipment to the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, an intense debate flared up around the subject of the German arms trade. Arguments of security and business policy are entangled.

Sigmar Gabriel, German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, and Germany’s vice chancellor, stated Wednesday in a keynote speech at the DGAP that aggressive German worldwide trade in arms could not be reconciled with the country’s security and foreign policy interests. German arms exports “needed to be grounded in security and foreign policy interests as well as in prevailing German legal norms,” precisely because “the production of and trade in military equipment is no normal business sector.”

German exports of military equipment are, above all, a matter of security, and should not be mixed with the interests of industrial policy. According to Gabriel this basic principle has been neglected in recent years. He called it a grave mistake that guidelines for exports were not taken seriously enough and that the “rules of the game” were disregarded. For example, the current task of fighting ISIS is bound up with the fact that too many weapons were delivered to this region. He urged the government to disentangle itself from the interests of industrial policy. Protecting the defense industry should not take place by further loosening exports.

Gabriel pointed out that, in terms of inspecting export permits, solid security policy expertise for the target regions is indispensable. As this knowledge is not always available in the ministry of economics, Gabriel thinks it worth considering whether approval of exports might not be better undertaken by the department that already has extensive know-how: the German foreign ministry. The SPD party leader said he would find “such a reform worthy of discussion.”

The basic principle is “no authorization”

Gabriel emphasized that the existing legal framework is clear and that nothing has changed – only that these rules have been generously stretched in the past. Not only is there no mention of entitlement to a permit in the War Weapons Control Act but, more importantly, such authorization should be refused if it would in any way “harm the federal government’s obligations of international law or endanger its compliance with them,” or if the buyer’s “requisite reliability” cannot be completely guaranteed. He went on to quote from the 2013 government report on military equipment exports that national “employment policy strategy … should play no determining role.”

Another ground Gabriel gave for restraint and caution in arms export was the question of monitoring the final destination. The example of failed states strengthens the imperative to ground all decisions regarding such exports in an analytical approach.

Deliveries of arms to the Arab World are presently cause for much debate. Gabriel stated that particularly in this region it was critical to adhere to principles of restraint. Export decisions should be based not only on careful assessment of the country making the potential purchase – how do matters stand with the state’s internal condition? are there social fault lines? – but also about the type of military equipment. Are these offensive or defensive? Would they secure borders or oppress the population? Is there a risk that weapons will be used to attack other countries or could the country itself become the target of violence? Whereas small arms are the means of choice in civil wars, the delivery of patrol boats may well be used to help contain pirates.

“Listing countries is no solution”

In the discussion that followed, the question was raised about the possibility of a catalogue detailing which countries were suitable for arms exports, to which Gabriel answered that such a list would neither be appropriate nor make sense. Despite the general desire for clarity, there are no easy answers: Such “black-and-white decisions” are only possible “if you’re not in the government.”

Especially in terms of arms deliveries to countries outside of the EU and NATO, there is always a need for complex, ongoing analysis and for proceeding strategically on a case-by-case basis. Supplying the Kurds of northern Iraq, for example, neither breaks taboos nor violates current law, but he spoke against selling Leopard battle tanks to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, that country’s interest in acquiring military equipment to defend its borders is legitimate.

A call for transparency

Gabriel sharply criticized the previous culture of arms export negotiations as “unworthy of a democracy,” and used the term the “shameful” to describe “dealings behind a curtain of secrecy.” He called for an enlightened relationship with Germany’s own armament capabilities and praised the current “transparency, which was previously unknown.” If every single permit were to pass through the Bundestag, this would force it to make clear arguments grounded in foreign and security policy. Not only would this oblige it to give grounds and declare its beliefs. It would also help Germany face up to its responsibility: “Our partners need German policy to be readable and predictable.”

Gabriel also advocated improving public discussion of the matter and encouraging an active, sober public debate guided by norms to ensure “the necessary anchoring of the debate once again in society.” “Even if we are just at the beginning,” Gabriel said, “I am sure that this transparency will do us good.”