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Really? There are many misconceptions and myths concerning arms exports. A fact check by Jan van Aken



luxemburg arguments


March 2019

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“Not a Single Tank Is Going into Conflict Areas”

Every sixty seconds a human being is shot and killed somewhere in the world, resulting in the deaths of around 500,000 men, women and children each year. As one of the world’s major arms dealers, Germany is responsible for many of these fatalities. Arms exports always facilitate war, destruction and death, as they provide the means for conflicts to become violent. Furthermore, they allow authoritarian regimes to oppress their own people. Arms supplies stabilise power relations in places where democracy and human rights are vulnerable.

Each euro earned from death, suffering, and repression is one too many. There is essentially only one way to prevent these deadly exports: a legally binding, absolute ban on arms exports. This is not only a utopian vision, but a very clear goal – and one that is far more realistic to achieve than many would think.

If We Don’t Supply, Others Will

This is probably the most common objection to the demand for an absolute ban on weapons and armaments exports. If it stopped supplying, Germany would arguably have a clean conscience, but it would not prevent the world’s conflicts from persisting. Furthermore, those who continue to sell weapons without restraint would then earn all the money to be made in this business.

A valid argument?

One thing is, of course, certain: if Germany were to cease its sales of assault rifles, the buyers would turn to other countries such as Belgium, the United States or Russia. And yet the argument is flawed for two reasons.

Firstly, for moral reasons: just because others are doing something that is wrong does not make it right. Just because my neighbour sells drugs does not mean I have to do it as well. Both behaviours are wrong. The consequences of one’s actions cannot be wiped clean simply by pointing the finger at others. The second argument is political: an export ban in Germany would set an example: a new global standard. Other countries would follow suit. The world can only be changed if some are willing to take the lead. It is not about doing the right thing here in Germany and then pointing the finger at others from our moral high horse. The goal is the restriction of global arms trading – and someone has to take the first step. An export ban implemented in Germany would doubtlessly heighten domestic political pressure on other export-based economies – who would no longer be able to make the argument that everyone else is doing it too.

Various examples from the context of disarmament illustrate that such bans can undoubtedly have a global impact, even though they may not apply to all countries: for many years, there was great – and inconclusive – controversy at the United Nations over a ban on landmines. Major powers such as China, the United States and Russia were eager to prevent such a ban. At one point, smaller countries peeled off and implemented a comprehensive ban of their own in the form of the Ottawa Treaty. The same applies to the ban on cluster munitions. Even though the superpowers have, to this day, not ratified this convention, weapons of this kind are today proscribed worldwide.

So Many Jobs Depend On This Industry

The demand for an absolute ban on arms exports is often confronted with the argument that you cannot simply destroy such an economically vital industry and sack tens of thousands of workers.

A valid argument?

Regardless of how many times the jobs argument is repeated, mainly by the governing parties, the German federal government has clearly and unambiguously stated in its ‘Political Principles of the Government’ on arms exports: “employment aspects are not allowed to play a significant role”. This really ought to put an end to all further discussion of the matter.

There is a lasting misconception that the arms industry is an economic heavyweight. According to the federal government, exports of military weapons account for just 0.21 per cent of total German exports. Compared with machinery, cars and services, arms exports play a negligible role for the German economy.

Unfortunately, there are no independently verified figures concerning the number of employees in armament production. For many years, the industry referred to 80,000 jobs, which sounded somewhat realistic. Then, in 2012, the Federal Association of the Security and Defence Industry (BDSV) presented a study of its own, according to which the number of people working directly in weapons production was only 17,000. Adding to this all those companies that are in some way linked to the security technologies sector, the BDSV calculated some 98,000 direct employees. Likewise, it is unknown exactly what percentage of the German armament industry comprises exports. Relying on certain benchmark data, it appears realistic to assume a 50 per cent share.

This would imply that a total ban on all armament exports could cost around 40,000 to 50,000 jobs. To offer a comparison, when the German drugstore chain Schlecker went bankrupt in 2012, around 25,000 people lost their jobs more or less overnight.

Furthermore, most of the labour force working in the arms industry is highly qualified, meaning they should be able to find new employment relatively quickly given the current lack of highly skilled labour on the German job market. That said, there is an individual and a personal story behind each and every job lost, which must be taken seriously. We, as leftists, have the duty to side with every individual whose job is threatened. Therefore, the solution cannot simply be the destruction of the arms industry, but rather its conversion, the cutover from military to civilian production, resulting in the preservation of jobs.

Arms Exports Help Stabilise Countries and Regions

In September 2011, under mounting pressure from critics, Angela Merkel introduced a new argument to the debate, which has subsequently been referred to as the ‘Merkel Doctrine’. She argued, “We must also provide the necessary means to those nations that are prepared to get involved. I’ll say it clearly: This includes arms exports”. To put it another way: Germany must, through arms supplies, make it possible for other states to protect themselves and others in order to create stability in individual countries and throughout the world.

A valid argument?

This is another weak argument – very weak indeed.

First of all, stability can never be attained domestically through armed force. The opposition or minorities can, of course, be oppressed through brutal violence in dictatorships, but never in the long term. Examples of this include the Arab Spring, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, or the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Whoever seeks to stabilise a dictatorship through armed force is complicit, on the one hand, in human rights violations and will, on the other, fail in the long run.

On an international scale, then, the idea of creating stability through weapon supplies is absurd. The military build-up of one country almost always leads to rivalling or neighbouring countries feeling threatened and following suit. This not only produces arms races, but far more complex threat scenarios.

Secondly, there are numerous examples of Germany supporting all sides involved in a looming or ongoing conflict: almost all South American countries have bought submarines from Germany in recent decades in order to protect themselves against each other. A veritably absurd situation: the mutual threats between these countries would still be the same if none of them had obtained submarines. The situation would, however, be much more stable, given that the potential for errors and destruction would be much smaller. The only beneficiary in this case is the German arms industry.

But Selling Weapons To the Kurds, Surely That’s OK?

In 2014, the German government decided to supply weapons to Kurdish militias, the so-called Peshmerga, in northern Iraq. Decommissioned rifles, rockets and other weapons from the German army worth 70 million euros were sent as a gift from the German government. The move was justified as a measure to protect the Yazidis and to fight against so-called Islamic State (Daesh). At the time, a debate ensued on the Left about whether the supplies to Kurdish groups, for example, for the defence of the town of Kobanê in northern Syria, did not represent a reasonable exception that justified arms exports.

A valid argument?

The quick and easy answer to this question is that out of all the Kurdish groups, the Peshmerga were the ones who did not protect or save the Yazidis (this was accomplished by the PKK in August 2014). Furthermore, the Peshmerga are pushing for secession from Iraq in order to establish a nation state of their own. Supporting the break-up of Iraq through weapon supplies cannot be the Left’s political position.

The really complicated question is a hypothetical one: how about supplying arms to the PKK or the progressive militias in northern Syria: the YPG/YPJ?

Although we, as leftists, stand in solidarity with progressive forces in Kurdistan, arms supplies are the wrong strategy. This is not to be mistaken for a radical pacifist position that rejects all use of force in any situation. I personally feel it is entirely justified that the people of Kobanê took up arms to defend themselves against the inhumane killers of Daesh.

But the crucial question for us here in Germany has to be: which measures could the government have most sensibly pursued in September 2014 in order to advance the Kurdish cause? At the time, there were at least two alternative options for intervention, both of which would have been very effective and changed the balance of power on the ground substantially.

Number one: placing international pressure on the Turkish AKP government, which, at the time, had entirely opened the border between Turkey and the northern Daesh-occupied regions of Syria. Night after night, international – and armed – Daesh militants travelled freely into the conflict zone via Turkey.

Consequently, the question really was: how could the German government contribute to a change in the balance of power? By arming the Peshmerga, or by preventing the arming of Daesh? The latter would have likely sparked a conflict with the Erdoğan regime – something the German government was apparently eager to avoid. The arms supplies were thus a (bad) substitute for a far more reasonable and effective option for political action.

Number two: the same applies to financial flows in support of Daesh. In 2014, multimillion donations were continuing to flow from various Arab countries to Islamist groups in Syria. The German embassy in Qatar made no efforts whatsoever to stop transactions from Islamist foundations based in the Gulf country to Syria. When pressed on the issue, it was in fact forced to admit that it had no idea who would have been responsible for such matters in Qatar.

The example of weapons supplies for the Peshmerga illustrates the extent to which German foreign policy is dominated by military thinking. When foreign policy problems arise, the government wastes little time in asking how they can be resolved militarily. This reminds me of an ancient Asian proverb: to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Jan van Aken is a biologist who has been active in the anti-nuclear movement, and worked both for Greenpeace and as a biological weapons inspector for the United Nations. From 2009 to 2017 he was a member of the German Bundestag for Die Linke. The complete booklet in German can be ordered in print or downloaded. First published in the series luxemburg argumente, the most recent issue of which addresses misconceptions and myths regarding arms exports. Translation and Proofreading by Jan-Peter Herrmann and Nivene Rafaat for lingua•trans•fair.