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Cabinet gives go-ahead for surplus arms sales

Sales of surplus war material is highly controversial

(Keystone)

The Swiss government has authorised the export of war material to Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan.

The approval follows controversy surrounding planned sales of surplus Swiss army equipment in the recent past, in particular to the United Arab Emirates.

At its meeting on Friday, the cabinet gave the green light to the deals, to be worked out by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco).

The sales include 20 air defence systems with ammunition to Saudi Arabia valued at SFr375 million ($309.27 million) and 21 air defence systems for Pakistan worth SFr136 million.

India wants to buy 140 assault rifles with accessories and spare parts for SFr519,000.

According to the government, these sales do not present any problems. The air defence systems are defensive weapons that cannot be used against the civilian population, noted Othmar Wyss at Seco.

In the case of India, he said the European Union was also exporting war material to the country. Declarations of onward export to another country had been supplied, he added.

Hot potato

The sale of surplus war material has been a political hot potato in Switzerland, with such exports to the United Arab Emirates suspended for a year after 40 M109 armoured vehicles were later transferred on to Morocco.

The controversy surrounding such exports began with the planned sale - authorised in 2005 – of 180 M113 armoured vehicles to Iraq via the UAE and 736 others to Pakistan.

Both deals fell through, in the case of Iraq after reports that the armoured personnel carriers would not be used for civilian purposes.

Requests from India and South Korea to purchase war material also came up against opposition.

In March the government told Pakistan that the 736 tanks were no longer for sale following a tightening of legislation on war material exports.

However, Pakistani authorities told visiting Swiss Defence Minister Samuel Schmid in October that they were still interested in buying the vehicles.

Current law

Under current legislation, obsolete army equipment has first to be sold or given back for nothing to the producer country.

Failing that, it can be offered, with the consent of the producer country, to other states that agree not to re-export and that are parties to international export controls.

As a last resort, it can be stocked in Switzerland or even scrapped.

A committee of the House of Representatives called on the government to be stricter on the issue and a people's initiative against exports of war material was launched in June.

Its supporters have until the end of December to collect the 100,000 signatures needed to force a nationwide vote on the issue.

In a reaction to the cabinet's decision, an official of the country's leading pacifist organisation – Switzerland without an army – said the group was shocked by the government's position.

Slap in the face

"It is a slap in the face of a key parliamentary committee which had come out against arms exports to India and Pakistan only in November," commented Reto Moosmann.

"The decision by the government confirms us in our endeavour to seek a general ban on arms exports. We're campaigning for a nationwide vote on the matter. After only six months we have already collected half the signatures necessary."

The federal administration has recently refused other demands for such exports on account of concerns for maintaining peace, international security and regional stability.

For legal and diplomatic reasons, names of companies and countries concerned are not published.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

By 2010 the Swiss army has to dispose of surplus army equipment worth SFr10 billion ($7.7 billion), including 1,200 M109 and M113 armoured vehicles, the oldest of which are 40 years old.

In June 2005 the Swiss cabinet approved the sale of 180 used M113 to Iraq via the United Arab Emirates, but suspended the sale in August, following reports that the carriers would not be used for civilian purposes.

In March 2006 the government decided to tighten licensing procedures for army exports. This led to the UAE and Pakistan cancelling their deals.

The Swiss government then decided to scrap 550 M113 in Switzerland. All steel and aluminium components are being recycled.

In July, Bern lifted its ban on the sale of such equipment to the UAE.

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Key facts

Switzerland has so far this year exported SFr321 million of war material (end of October).
It authorised sales of SFr259 million in 2005 and SFr402 million in 2004.

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