The business of war

The State does not verify the use of the weapons it sells, despite having the tools to do so

A mechanism was approved a year ago to be able to inspect where the material ends up, but it has not been developed

4 min
Spain is one of the countries participating in the European Eurofighter fighter, in service since 2003, with the armies of the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy

MadridThe PSOE and Unidas Podemos agreed in their coalition government agreement that state portfolios, such as Defence, would go to the party led by Pedro Sánchez. That decision put a brake on the aspirations of organisations that for years have been denouncing Spain's role in arms exports because, in practice, nothing has changed with respect to the PP period. On paper, however, in April 2020 a relevant event took place: the Spanish government approved a decree, 494/2020, which proposed a mechanism that would enable it to verify on the ground that the arms and dual-use material it exports are used for what has been agreed. Most of the actors consulted agree that this is an important step, but it has its dark corners. The first of all: that it has not been used.

"Today it is already stated in some contracts that Spain reserves the right to carry out a subsequent control, but none has yet been carried out", says Roberto Uriarte, spokesman for Unidas Podemos in the parliamentary defence committee. This is corroborated by Alberto Estévez, a member of Amnesty International and one of the spokespersons for the Control Arms campaign. In December 2020, the associations that make up this party held a meeting with the Secretary of State for Trade in which they asked that arms exports to Saudi Arabia be stopped and, if not, that this ex post certificate be implemented. "We have not implemented it for the moment", was the government's response, as Estévez explained in conversation with the ARA.

"Not to be a dead letter"

The state secretariat for trade assures ARA that it has already started to require the certificate in "certain applications to destinations of particular sensitivity", such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but not Ghana. As licence authorisations are secret and not known until the annual report, we will have to wait to know the progress of the tool. In the appearance in the parliamentary committee, its head, Xiana Margarida Méndez, stated that she would try to make it "real, not just a dead letter, not just a nice, theoretical instrument".  

The instrument already exists in the United States, Switzerland, Germany and is also being considered in Sweden, as pointed out by Méndez, who gave a generic explanation of how it works on June 29 last year. It is applied with the acceptance by the client of an ex post certificate containing a double clause: the first involves a declaration by the importing country that it will not use the material outside its territory. The second, and this is the novelty, implies that the receiving country "undertakes to allow the Spanish authorities a verification, an inspection, at the time that the exporting authority requests it". The approved decree includes a template for this certificate, but the complaint of some political parties and entities is that how the inspection materializes has not yet been developed.

Méndez, in fact, invited the parliamentary groups to make proposals in this regard. A year later, however, it has not gone any further. Uriarte believes that the most appropriate approach would be for it to be carried out by independent authorities: academics and NGOs. "If it were done by the embassy or the companies themselves, it would not generate the same confidence", he says. "How is it applied?" asks Estévez, who is as sceptical as Delàs Centre member Jordi Calvo, who sees this instrument as a way of passing on responsibility to the buyer country in the face of possible criminal proceedings if the final use has ended up being in armed conflicts or against the civilian population, rather than a desire to control arms exports. "It has another aspect, which is to give legal security to the companies that sell arms", he adds.

Although the government has not wanted to evaluate this hypothesis of removing itself from responsibility, Méndez wanted to make it clear in her appearance that there is "no element that carries more weight than the protection of human rights" in terms of the arms trade. "Neither the economic interest nor the interest of preserving workplaces", she specified. Even so, there have been tensions within the government in recent months over Spanish arms reportedly used in Yemen. The recently appointed Minister of Social Rights, Ione Belarra, had an argument with the Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles, because she denounced that Spain cannot be considered a "full democracy" if what anti-militarist associations denounce is happening.

The socialist part of the government, however, denies the matter. Méndez stated on 29 June 2020 that she was not aware that any material authorised by the Interministerial Board for the Regulation of Foreign Trade in Defence and Dual-Use Material (Jimddu) ended up in Yemen, thus continuing to legitimise the sale of material to Saudi Arabia. "The Arab League countries that are part of the coalition against the rebels in Yemen are not subject to any UN or EU embargo", the government added in a response to a written question from EH Bildu in January.

The absence of an embargo order is one of the criteria that Jimddu takes into account when validating or not the licences, as well as seven other criteria, such as the protection of human rights, the risk of diversion or internal and regional situations. Estévez is highly critical of the fact that Spain continues to export to places with so many indications of violations of these parameters and complains that, as a final argument, the government's response is that "it cannot distrust its allies". 

Diplomacy and geopolitics

This is another dark angle of the ex post certificate, which is that it is meant to be introduced on an "exceptional" basis. To do so would always be a contradiction in terms, said Méndez, because it could be a sign of distrust towards the exporter. "There is a lot of geopolitics", admits Uriarte, who advocates stopping the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, as was done with Turkey with respect to material that could be used in Syria. 

Estévez recalls that Sánchez announced the decision on Turkey, so that although Jimddu is the body that authorises the licences, "ultimately Moncloa is the one who decides". And the reality is that beyond instruments of dubious functioning, the arms export sector enjoys iron health and a wall of opacity.