Arms trade with Israel eroding Finland’s global stature

Controversial military deals overshadow Finland’s projected humanitarian image.

Finland maintains business relations with the sole camouflage provider of the Israeli army [EPA]

Helsinki’s eagerness to conduct trade in military hardware and technology with Israel indicates that the image of Finland promoting human rights globally becomes expendable for Finnish policy planners when commercial and state interests come to the fore.

The volume of bilateral commerce in military hardware and technology between Finland and Israel amounts to over $340m, according to my calculations. The bulk of the trade has been conducted during and after the Second Intifada, in the midst of Israel’s depredations in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

The Ministry of Defence of Finland’s (MDF) affinity for the occupation-powered systems of the most militarised state in the world has gradually led to a situation in which Finland has forged individual business relations with a whole host of Israeli manufacturers of military equipment, including RAFAEL, Elbit Systems, ECI Telecom and Fibrotex. Finland’s Israeli trading partners are fully embedded in the Israeli military.

Fibrotex is the exclusive supplier of camouflage items to the Israeli army. Dubbing Finland “a valued customer” for many years, the CEO of Fibrotex states that he takes “great pride in our company’s four decade relationship as [the IDF’s] exclusive source for concealment solutions”. Finland’s recent deal with Fibrotex is estimated at just over $47m.

Elbit Systems is arguably the most notable powerhouse and flagship of the Israeli arms industry. The company’s technology forms an integral part of the arsenals of the three branches of the Israeli military apparatus: ground force, air force and navy.

Former CEO of Elbit, Joseph Ackerman, described Elbit’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) arsenal as “the backbone” of Israel’s UAV operations. According to Human Rights Watch, Israel killed 87 civilians with UAVs during Israel’s three-week onslaught against the Gaza Strip in 2008-09. Finland’s trade with Elbit is over $25m.

Nuclear disarmament in the Middle East

The most problematic aspect of the overall Finnish-Israeli commerce in military items is Finland’s business relationship with RAFAEL. Founded in 1957, RAFAEL has been and remains an integral part of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme.

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Israel is the sole nuclear weapon state in the Middle East and the only country adamantly opposed to establishing a nuclear-weapon-free-zone (NWFZ) in the region.

In October 2011, Finland was chosen to host a conference whose task was to help forward the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East. The conference was organised under UN auspices and was to be held in Helsinki in December, 2012.

Iran agreed to attend the negotiations. Israel, however, refused. The US cancelled the Helsinki Conference in November 2012, just prior to the conference’s set date.

Finnish policy planners drastically undermine their own efforts to counter nuclear weapons in the region. Finland, notwithstanding the diplomatic capital invested by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland (MFA) to the Helsinki Conference, continues to partake in large-scale trade with the very institution deeply involved in the only nuclear weapons programme in the entire Middle East. Finland has conducted trade with RAFAEL for over $114m.

Picture this analogy: If Iran had a nuclear weapons programme and Finland poured taxpayer money into the pockets of a core Iranian institution involved in that endeavour, it would most likely (and rightly so) cause a national scandal. Finland’s collaboration with RAFAEL, however, has passed unchallenged.

Although Finland is widely regarded as an exemplary member of the world community, Finland’s ever-growing enthusiasm to pursue large-scale trade in military equipment with a flagrant violator of international law has probably elicited more domestic criticism than Finland’s arms trade with any other state.

Over 250 Finnish dignitaries from the arts, sciences and politics have signed a petition demanding an immediate ceasing of all military trade and cooperation between Israel and Finland. Among the signatories are Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, world-renowned international law expert Martti Koskenniemi and distinguished professor at the University of Helsinki, forensic dentist Helena Ranta. They are joined by Finnish MEPs and MPs, a number of Finlandia Prize winners, film and stage directors, writers, actors, scholars and more than 40 university professors.

A critical eye

Furthermore, Taloussanomat, Helsingin Sanomat and other prominent Finnish media outlets have dealt with various aspects of the Finnish-Israeli military trade with a critical eye.

Defying the actual record of Finland’s cosy relationship with Israel’s military-industrial complex, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) support for that relationship, the MFA does not hold back when describing the purported role of human rights in Finland’s foreign policy. 

“Finland promotes human rights actively everywhere in the world. Human rights are among the priorities in Finland’s foreign and security policy and they are addressed in all sectors consistently and with initiative. Transparency and cooperation with the civil society form the baseline for both Finnish and international human rights policy.”

Such reads the MFA briefing under the title “Human rights and Finland’s foreign policy”. Surprisingly, this is not an uncommon view – in Finland or internationally – on the essential qualities of Finnish foreign policy agenda.

Not only did the petition and critical media attention fall on deaf ears in MFA, but the MFA went on to help draft a controversial legal agreement between the Finnish government and the Israeli Ministry of Defence that brings the Finnish and Israel arms industries closer together.

The first and defining article of the agreement reads as follows: “The purpose of this agreement is to protect classified Information and/or classified material transmitted or exchanged between the parties in connection with research, procurement or manufacturing in the field of defence or security…”

In summary, the MFA has not raised objections to the relentless MDF pace of sealing new deals in military equipment with Israel and has chosen to ignore the exceptional petition signed by top Finnish influential people. Moreover, in the midst of mounting domestic criticism of the Finnish-Israeli arms trade, the MFA assists in drafting a bill that enforces strengthened secrecy on, and enables deeper cooperation in, military trade between Finland and Israel.

One begins to wonder what exactly the MFA has in mind when it proclaims that “[t]ransparency and cooperation with the civil society form the baseline for both Finnish and international human rights policy”.

Bruno Jantti is an investigative journalist specialising in international politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @BrunoJantti