Blocked weapon sales draws public attention

The production of weapons and arms components is increasingly divided up between different companies and globalised Keystone

The Swiss government regularly comes in for criticism over the export of firearms. A blocked sale of weapon components to the United States has recently put the spotlight on little known aspects of the global arms trade.

This content was published on April 18, 2013 - 11:00

The government in January vetoed the deal for handgun parts worth more than CHF400,000 on the grounds that the handguns – assembled in the US for export to Saudi Arabia - could be used to violate human rights.

The latest statistics on Swiss export licences of arms and weapons parts – ranging from electronic equipment, computer software to scopes, tubes, screws and springs – has made pacifists and human rights groups express serious doubts about the application of the law on war materiel.

Over the past 12 years the percentage of components exports more than doubled – from 26 per cent to 46 per cent and a total of CHF925 million ($989.2 million) - compared with the licences granted for defence systems or complete arms.

Both the pacifist Switzerland without an Army group and Amnesty International suspect that some producers might have shifted their business activities to try to circumvent the strict Swiss law on weapons exports.

The two non-governmental organisations have also pointed out what they consider shortcomings in the information policy of the economics ministry unit in charge of arms exports.

However, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) rejects the allegations.

“Switzerland has repeatedly been praised by an independent survey for its transparent information on the trade in small arms and light weapons. I don’t think we are less transparent when it comes to other arms,” says Simon Plüss, senior official at Seco’s export control unit.


Jo Lang, a leading member of the pacifist group, nonetheless accuses the administration of “systematic non-transparency”.

“They only inform the public when they are forced to do so,” he says. He adds that the export of special military goods does not appear in the regular statistics on arms exports.

Patrick Walder of the Swiss chapter of Amnesty International treads more carefully. He acknowledges that Switzerland is among the most transparent countries when it comes to weapons sales.

“A more active information policy by Seco is imaginable, for instance on ways used by the industry to bypass regulations,” he says.

Walder questions how efficient the control of end users of Swiss arms and the regulations on arms components can be – notably a clause which facilitates sales to private companies abroad provided production cost for components make up less than half of the total costs of a weapon.

Parliament approval

A newspaper report in January accused the government and the administration of covering up the regular practice of weapons exports by not explicitly mentioning exceptions granted to ease exports to a group of 25 beneficiaries, long-standing trading partners of Switzerland which have similar export rules.

They include mostly European countries as well as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Argentina.

More criticism was leveled at the Swiss cost calculations allegedly undermining strict regulations.

Seco argues everything is above board with Switzerland applying international calculation standards.

“Exceptions to the restrictive export provisions were approved by parliament. In addition, the law states that the government informs the parliamentary control committee on an annual basis about weapons exports,” says Plüss from Seco.

He stresses that exporters which were granted special conditions still have to meet an number of other requirements.


The government, the industry - even the NGOs - all agree that the increase in export licences is primarily a result of the globalised production and trade in military as well as civilian goods.

“Fewer and fewer Swiss firms sell whole weapons systems nowadays. Instead parts or components are produced and exported to be assembled elsewhere,” says Ivo Zimmermann, spokesman of the Swiss engineering industry (Swissmem).

In a similar vein, pacifist campaigner Lang points out the continuing division of labour with specialised manufacturers – a fact that makes binding rules even more urgent in his opinion.

A case in point is the government in January vetoing the sale of pistol components by a Swiss-based manufacturer to the US which was to assemble the firearms for re-export to Saudi Arabia’s Royal Guard at a later stage. (See related story)

Arms Trade Treaty

The first ever legally binding international arms trade treaty (ATT) was approved by the UN General Assembly in March.

The agreement follows years of negotiations and two conferences over the past ten months trying to agree a text for a treaty.

The ATT regulates the $70 billion global deal in conventional arms, including tanks, combat vehicles, artillery systems, fighter jets, warships, missiles, rifles and handguns.

It also covers ammunition and weapons components. However, nuclear, chemical and biological arms are not included in the ATT.

The treaty requires governments to refuse the export of weapons to countries violating human rights and humanitarian law or committing genocide or other war crimes.

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Seco warns of reading too much into the latest export data on weapons components.

The number of licences granted is not necessarily equivalent to the actual sales effected, says Plüss. He also stresses that it is not a linear increase from CHF100 million in 2000 to CHF925 million last year.

The engineering industry for its parts denies speculation that the surge in component exports is due to a tightening of regulations on arms exports.

Spokesman Zimmermann says the industry is not against restrictions on arms exports in general. “But it is crucial that European countries are all on the same level playing field to avoid competitive discrimination.”

He does not confirm reports that the industry might be stepping up lobbying efforts to lower Swiss standards for export rules in line with those of the Arms Trade Treaty. (See infobox).

Amnesty has expressed concern the industry might use the outcome of the United Nations conference in New York in March to push for additional concessions. The human rights group argues Switzerland has a special responsibility as neutral country with a long humanitarian tradition.

Seco official Plüss says there is no pressure by arms manufacturers on the administration and he does not believe the international treaty will have a major impact on Swiss legislation.

Nevertheless a call by parliament in 2010 for government to consider easing export rules on war materiel seems to have triggered activities at a political level, he notes.

Swiss rules on weapons exports

Swiss rules on weapons exports

The 1996 law on war materiel exports and its additional regulations requires government licences which are granted under certain conditions.

The law was tightened several times, notably banning exports to countries involved in conflicts, introducing post shipment inspections and a clause on re-exports.

In November 2009 Swiss voters rejected an outright ban of arms exports.

Latest figures show that exports of war materiel slumped to CH700 million in 2012 – 20% down on the previous year. Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, the US and India were the main importers.

The economics ministry approved just under 2,400 requests for arms exports last year.

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