Update: 23.05.2018

Weapons instead of human rights: lobbying for wars

Swiss weapons may soon also be used in countries torn by civil wars. The Swiss Federal Council will decide this summer on whether or not it will bow to lobbying from the arms industry and whether it will substantially abolish the War Material Ordinance (WMO).

Historical background and changing balance of power

The history of struggle for power between the peace movement and the armament lobby is long. 10 years ago, at the time when the GSoA initiative “For a Ban on the Export of all War Material” hung over the head of the Swiss armament industry like the sword of Damocles, the Federal Council promised that the situation would improve. In 2008, it included several long-standing peace lobby demands in the WMO. Exports would no longer be allowed to countries that a) are involved in an internal or international armed conflict b) systematically and gravely violate human rights c) rank amongst the least developed countries in the world d) have a high risk that the exported weapons will be used against civilian populations or e) pass on the weapons to a undesired final recipient.

U-turn by the Federal Council

The Federal Council changed its position just five years later. In the meantime, the GSoA initiative had been rejected by voters. In early September 2014, the Federal Council decided to amend the WMO to simplify the export of war material. Specifically, it added an exception regulation to the passage disallowing the export of weapons to countries that systematically and gravely violate human rights (Art. 5 Para. 2 old WMO). Since 1 November 2014, the human rights situation only needs to be considered, meaning that permissions can be granted if there is only a limited risk that the war material to be exported may be used for committing serious human rights violations (Art. 5 Para. 4 new WMO).

This situation is the result of the implementation of a motion originating from the Security Policy Committee of the Council of States (SPC-S) which was accepted in the National Council by the president’s casting vote.

Second softening of position

A second step softening the stance took place in April 2016 when the Federal Council lifted the one-year ban on exports to the Middle East (war in Yemen). It redefined the WMO in a way that the ban to export weapons to a country involved in an armed conflict would only apply if an armed conflict was occurring in the recipient country. This meant Switzerland could again export war material to Saudi Arabia.

Non-transparent practice

There are also major deficiencies in Swiss concession practice. The responsible State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO lacks transparency with regard to the approval of weapons exports. The interpretation of Art.22 WMA (War Material Act) or Art. 5 WMO (War Material Ordinance), which define the preconditions for the granting of an export permit has not been sufficiently clarified. What remains particularly unclear is which human rights criteria are taken into consideration by SECO when deciding whether or not to grant a permit.

The lamentations of the weapons industry: industry interests first

In September 2017, various representatives of the weapons industry such as Ruag, Mowag, Thales, Rheinmetall and B & T sent a letter to the Security Policy Committee of the Council of States (SPC-S) complaining about the falling export figures, tracing them back to, in their opinion, the overly strict export regulations compared to other European countries.

In November 2017 and 1 February 2018, the SPC-S invited members of Ruag and Swissmem to their Committee meetings. A representation of the civil society by GSoA was declined.

The talks were reportedly about relaxing the War Material Ordinance, in particular with respect to the expansion of export permits and deliveries to countries with “internal conflicts,” meaning countries affected by civil wars.

According to various newspaper sources, the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, lead by Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann, will put the easing of the WMO on the agenda before summer 2018 during a Federal Council meeting. The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport are also involved in the planning.

Well networked

When lobbying, the arms industry can rely on a strong network of influential friends. Both Federal Councillor Schneider-Amman and Federal Councillor Parmelin are former members of asuw (Working Committee for Security and Defence Technology). 40 other members of parliament also currently represent this interest group. asuw is one of the key authors of the letter addressed to the SPC-S. Four asuw members are also part of the SPC-S.

Growing opposition

On 7 February 2018, 29 organisations, including humanrights.ch, addressed an open letter to the Federal Council. In it, they expressed their concern about the granting of export permits for war material to countries torn by civil war.

Wide alliance of women

Opposition against the loosening of the export regulations is also arising in parliament: six women from six political parties (Social Democratic Party, Green Party, Green Liberal Party, Conservative Democratic Party, Christian Democratic People’s Party and Swiss People’s Party) are working together to “draw attention to their concerns about the loosening of the War Material Ordinance.” Only a Liberal Democratic Partyrepresentative is missing.

There are many reasons for opposition, including worries about Swiss neutrality, the volatile international situation, and the incompatibility with Switzerland’s humanitarian commitment. But the aim is identical: in their first joint initiative during the Federal Council’s question hour on 5 March 2018, the six members of parliament campaigned against “the demolishment of the War Material Ordinance.”

International set of rules

Besides the national WMA and the WMO, there are also some international contracts that limit the exports of war materials, such as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Arms Trade Treaty

As the first of its kind, the ATT sets standards binding by international law for the regulation and control of international business with conventional weapons. The ATT obliges the contracting states to check whether the weapons to be exported will be used to commit serious human rights violations and thus to find out whether or not international humanitarian law will be violated.

During international negotiations, Switzerland advocated a comprehensive arms trade treaty with the highest possible international standard, universal applicability and a wide scope. But the ATT is just a collection of minimum standards. WMA and WMO both set stricter criteria, at least on paper. There is a danger that the Federal Council will take the ATT as a pretext to loosen the existing stricter Swiss regulations. This cynical approach –calling for stricter standards on an international level and loosening national restrictions at the same time – is all the more repulsive because Switzerland was elected to chair the ATT Secretariat.

Geneva Conventions

Article 1 of the four Geneva Conventions calls for the contracting parties “to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all situations.” How far this commitment is valid remains a matter of discussion between member states, the UN and NGOs.

GAccording to GSoA, by ratifying the Geneva Convention, Switzerland undertook to refrain from all measures which might promote violations of international humanitarian law, and to take the necessary steps whenever possible to ensure that all parties in a conflict adhere to the rules of humanitarian law.

Barbara Frey, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Prevention of Human Rights Violations Committed with Small Arms made the same argument in the early 2000s. In her view, Article 1 also bans the delivery of war material to actors who will use it to commit violations of international humanitarian law or to states where there is a severe risk of doing so. In such cases, a state is not only allowed to refuse to grant an export permit, it is obligated to refuse.

But Switzerland is taking another view. In its approach, applying international humanitarian law to a conflict does not imply an export ban according to Article 5, Para. 2, lit. a of the WMO. In the Confederation’s view, Article 1 only requires a state to stop exporting war materials if the war material is knowingly being used to violate international humanitarian law. Therefore, applying international humanitarian law alone does not mean a general ban of war material exports to military conflict zones.

Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions has clearly been poorly implemented in Switzerland and elsewhere. But the lack of an international practice on Article 1 and patchy implementation do not mean that the obligation does not exist per se.

Commentary by humanrights.ch

The fact that the Federal Council has already loosened the restrictions of the WMO twice, which it issued in 2008 just before the popular vote on the Ban of Weapons Initiative, is highly problematic, both from a political and ethical perspective.

It is even more worrying that both SPC-S and the Federal Council have caved to pressure from the arms industry again. To allow weapons to be shipped to countries torn by civil war would be an absolute breach with the Swiss humanitarian tradition.

It seems hypocritical that, over the past ten years, the Federal Council has repeatedly given higher priority to the economic interests of weapon export companies than to human rights issues, and at the same time continues to promote Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition and commitment to human rights.

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