Earlier this year, as mass popular uprisings spread through the Middle East and audiences across the world sat transfixed by images of unarmed citizens confronting iron-fisted security forces in the streets of Arab capitals, powerful governments from Russia to the United States were forced to begin accounting for the weapons they had for decades sold to the very rulers they now found themselves abandoning.
In Egypt and Bahrain, protesters held up tear gas canisters stamped “Made in USA”, giving longstanding US support for autocratic Arab regimes a painful physical manifestation.
But the United States has not been the only culprit. Egyptian riot police fired shotgun shells made in Italy, and Libyan special forces wielded Belgian assault rifles. Bulgaria has led weapons sales to Yemen, and Russia likely supplies a huge amount of Syria’s armoury.
According to a report released on Wednesday by London-based human rights organisation Amnesty International, in the five years preceding the Arab Spring, a host of at least 20 governments – including Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Serbia, Switzerland and South Korea – sold more than $2.4 billion worth of small arms, tear gas, armoured vehicles and other security equipment to the the five countries that have faced – and violently combated – popular uprisings: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
After security forces turned on protesters with lethal force, some governments, such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, suspended certain arms sales. Britain announced in February that it would revoke more than 50 arms licenses, including for tear gas and ammunition, to Bahrain and Libya. In Syria’s case, many governments had not sold weapons to the government of Bashar al-Assad for years.
But for the thousands of people who have died since January, such measures came too late, and many countries seem ready to return to business as usual. The United States is currently considering selling Bahrain $53 million of Humvees, bunker-busting TOW missiles and other items, the first such sale to the Gulf island monarchy since protests erupted and were violently repressed earlier this year. China has said it will look into whether companies violated state policy when they negotiated an arms deal with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime during the uprising in Libya, but neither Beijing nor the government in Russia publishes data on its weapons sales, making accountability difficult for two of the world’s biggest arms suppliers (10 per cent of Russia’s arms sales go to Syria, according to Amnesty).
The league table
The United States has far outpaced all other countries in arms exports to the five countries mentioned in the report, approving sales worth roughly $1.1 billion between 2005 and 2010, all but $100 million of which went to Egypt. Italy sold $554 million in arms, mostly to Libya, followed by $145 million from Germany and $111 million from Serbia.
Using the data compiled by Amnesty International as well as independently sourced information from the United Nations’ Comtrade database, Al Jazeera has assembled a graphical representation of the arms traffic.
Amnesty’s data included the monetary amounts of government-to-government transfers, government-approved commercial sales licenses, and commercial exports. But detailed data on arms sales is unreliable, since national reports may differ from those provided by the European Union and United Nations, and regulations change year to year.
To avoid double counting sales licenses that may have been tallied again in another year when the export actually occurred, Al Jazeera has mostly limited the data to the one-time dollar amount of licenses granted and government-to-government transfers made, as they are powerful indicators of a government’s approval and willingness to sell arms. One-time export values were counted when it was clear they had not been previously noted.
It was also difficult to delineate standard categories of weapons, since standards changed by country and year.
Bahrain received millions of dollars worth of small arms – anything from pistols to assault rifles – and “smooth bore” weapons meant to fire tear gas canisters or grenades. The monarchy also received 209 sniper rifles from Finland worth tens of thousands of dollars, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars in US-made tear gas.
Egypt received small arms from countries including Austria, Belgium and Bulgaria. Finland was again involved in dealing sniper rifles, selling two (a TRG-22 and a TRG-42) to the Ministry of Interior. Germany sold Egypt 884 submachine guns in 2009, and Italy supplied weapons systems for the country’s tanks. The United States sold Egypt the majority of its tear gas since 2005.
Numerous countries were involved in arms sales to Libya, especially Italy, which sold hundreds of millions of dollars in armoured vehicles and small arms. Belgium’s FN Herstal manufacturer, owned by the Walloon government, controversially exported a variety of small arms, including F2000 and P90 assault rifles, to the elite 32nd “Khamis” Brigade in 2009, ostensibly to protect humanitarian convoys to Sudan. After Gaddafi’s fall, rebel fighters and even civilians have since acquired these weapons, one of which which was equipped with a silencer and seen by an Al Jazeera reporter in Tripoli.
British-made mortar rounds and assaults rifles and ammunition from Russia and North Korea have also been seen by Al Jazeera journalists at the site of battles in Libya.
Russia is believed to be one of Syria’s primary arms suppliers, though data is not available. In 2008, Italy authorised a roughly $3.8 million license to sell Syria fire-control systems for its tanks, which Amnesty believes is part of a 1998 agreement worth $200 million to upgrade Syria’s 122 T-72 tanks.
Arming the autocrats
Contained in the Amnesty report are instances of lax government oversight, apparent manoeuvring to avoid regulations, and policy decisions that would later come back to haunt western politicians.
In 2007, Spain licensed the sale of roughly $5.45 million of arms to Libya under the UN Comtrade category that covered bombs, rockets and missiles. The records indicate that this order was likely exported the following year. Amnesty believes that the commercial sale included MAT-120 cluster bombs, a 120mm mortar-fired munition that became infamous after reporters and human rights researchers discovered it had been used on civilian areas during the siege of Misurata.
MAT-120 rounds separate into more than a dozen smaller bomblets, all of which are intended to detonate on impact, but reporters and Misurata residents discovered unexploded remnants in April, during the battle for the city. Doctors and others worried that the small, metallic devices would be particularly attractive to children. The MAT-120, manufactured by the Spanish company Instalaza SA, is banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which Spain ratified on December 3, 2008, after the export took place.
Italian companies may have sought to evade government restrictions to also sell weapons to Gaddafi’s regime. In 2009, the company Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta shipped roughly $11.9 million of small arms, including shotguns, pistols and semi-automatic rifles, via Malta, to the General People’s Committee for Public Safety. The company reportedly marked the shipment as non-military items, so the permit for the transport was issued by a local authority instead of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome, which would have subjected the export to laws regarding military items and undertaken a risk assessment.
The British government initially took a principled stand on arms sales to Libya: In 2006, the UK refused to licence several deals, citing a European Union regulation which requires states not to sell weapons “if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression”.
But by 2008, British companies were allowed to sell more than $8.65 million worth of armoured vehicles to Libya; the following year, the government approved sales of tear gas and other equipment which Amnesty points out could clearly be used for “internal repression”.
In Bahrain, even stereotypically neutral Switzerland became involved in the arms trade, selling the monarchy there a combined $5.4 million in small arms and ammunition between 2005 and 2010.
But Amnesty researcher Helen Hughes, who authored the report, said she was particularly concerned about the nearly $16 million in UK sales, which included assault and sniper rifles, submachine guns, tear gas and shotguns and grenade launchers – the latter two having been used to deadly effect against protesters in the country.
Al Jazeera has reported extensively on demonstrators in Bahrain who have been severely wounded or killed by shotgun rounds or tear gas canisters fired at close range or at victims’ heads. When a 16-year-old Shia protester died in early October after being struck by birdshot, more than 10,000 people took to the streets to protest, and were confronted with tear gas and sound grenades.
As protests continue there and in Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, the weapons supplied in years past will undoubtedly continue to see use, and regimes appear able to replenish supplies, despite campaigns by activists and politicans to force their halt. Hughes and Amnesty argue for the implementation of a global Arms Trade Treaty and for more stringent national controls.
“Countries need to drill down further in examining the end user, the particular unit in the security forces, and really examine the capacity and propensity of that end user to use those weapons lawfully,” Hughes told Al Jazeera.
But as long as billions of dollars in profit remain available, many countries seem eager to put memories of the Arab Spring behind them.
Recently, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Interfax news agency that his country did not see Assad’s regime “losing control” in Syria.
“Proceeding from this, Russia has continued to interact with Syria, in particular, in the military and technical sphere, fulfilling earlier reached agreements,” he said.
Further details on the known arms exports mentioned in this report, sourced from Amnesty International and United Nations Comtrade, are outlined below. Fields marked with a (-) indicate that, while arms sales may have taken place, those details are not available. All monetary amounts given in US$.