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Government draws flak over arms sales

40 tanks destined for the UAE have ended up in Morocco without Swiss permission

(Keystone)

Swiss arms-export policy has been thrown into disarray following revelations that tanks destined for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ended up in Morocco.

The government has now set up a working group to re-examine existing procedures and to find out whether tighter controls on weapons sales are needed.

The decision to set up the working group, comprising representatives from the economics, defence, foreign, and police and justice ministries, has been welcomed by all political parties.

But both the Greens and the centre-left Social Democrats are demanding further action, saying the government has lost control of the situation.

"Until the questionable conditions governing arms sales can be guaranteed, [we] demand that planned sales of military material to Pakistan, India and South Korea be stopped immediately," the Social Democrats said in a statement.

"In addition, significant changes must be made to the law on the export of war material."

Guarantees broken

On Wednesday Economics Minister Joseph Deiss announced that 40 tanks sold to the UAE in 2004 had been sent to Morocco in a clear breach of the end-user certificate.

The Middle East nation said it had obtained permission from the United States, which built the tanks, but not the Swiss authorities.

Deiss said Switzerland would probably not have approved their export to Morocco, due to the country's long-running conflict with the Polisario independence movement in the Western Sahara, a disputed desert territory it seized in 1975.

"The UAE is... trying to find a solution. It is unclear whether these tanks still belong to the UAE," said Rita Baldegger, spokeswoman for the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.

Swiss officials have said they learned from foreign media that the tanks, sold for SFr4 million ($3.2 million), were being used in Morocco, possibly for training.

But it emerged on Thursday that the Swiss authorities were well aware of the UAE's desire to send the tanks to Morocco.

According to a defence-ministry statement to the Swiss current-affairs programme 10vor10, the UAE had sought permission from Bern two years ago to transfer the tanks after the sale. The request was refused.

Sale suspended

The affair came to light just days after the Swiss government suspended the SFr12 million sale to the UAE of 180 personnel carriers, destined for Iraq.

The economics ministry is demanding guarantees that the vehicles will only be used for civilian purposes. A report in the Basler Zeitung stated that the tanks would not be used by the Iraqi police, as originally intended, but rather by an Iraqi army-tank division.

Swiss security expert Albert Stahel has warned that the deal could make Switzerland a target of terrorist attacks.

The Green Party, which is unhappy at claims of US interference in both UAE arms deals, wants to see Swiss legislation on arms exports tightened.

It says the existing ban on arms sales to countries that are at war should be extended to cover nations where there is internal conflict.

End to arms exports

But Green Party parliamentarian Josef Lang believes it would be safer all round if the government dropped arms sales altogether.

"Personally, I think that all the weapons that the Swiss army does not need should be destroyed, because the political cost of exporting arms is too high," he told swissinfo.

"It damages the country's neutrality and it's wrong from a foreign-policy point of view."

Whatever the conclusions of the working group, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey says it will always be difficult to ensure that end-user certificates are honoured.

"End-user certificates are based on good faith between countries. It's very rare that exporting states have the capacity to follow up and check whether the guarantees given are being followed," said Anna Khakee, a consultant at the Small Arms Survey.

She pointed out that Washington had recently quarrelled with one of its closest allies, Israel, over the resale of US military equipment.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

The government has set up a working group to review procedures covering arms exports.

It follows revelations that 40 tanks sold to the United Arab Emirates ended up in Morocco.

The government has also come under fire over the proposed sale of 180 armoured personnel carriers to the UAE, from where they are destined for Iraq.

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