By DAMIEN SPLEETERS
The uprisings in Libya and Syria have cast the Belgian small arms industry as a case study of the difficult balances within a Western arms-manufacturing community that seeks exports to preserve revenue and local jobs, but risks compromising European policies and human rights values.
Belgium is one of Europe’s busiest exporters of small arms and light weapons. As late as 2010, the last year for which publicly released data is available, 32 percent of the small-arms exports from the European Union to the Middle East and North Africa originated in the small NATO state.
Then came the Arab uprisings, which as they have played out over the past year have brought to the surface the Belgian government’s apparently limited control over the effects of the arms sales of FN Herstal, Belgium’s principal small arms manufacturer. In short, those weapons have been used much differently than the exporters would have it.
Some of the history is now publicly known. In May 2008, FN Herstal signed a 12 million Euro contract with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government to provide the 32nd Brigade, a so-called elite unit with a spotted human rights record, with various small arms. On July 11 of the same year, FN asked the Walloon regional government, its only shareholder and the authority that issues arms export licenses to the company, to approve export licenses for the deal.
The Walloon Region was responsible for reviewing the proposed sale and any risks it presented of human rights abuses or arms diversion, and a confidential report on the deal by one of the regional government’s delegates to Geneva, Marc Clairbois, in February 2009, made clear there was trouble on those fronts. Colonel Qaddafi’s government by then had a well-established history of human rights abuses and arms transfers to nonstate combatants, including in Africa, the Palestinian territories and Ireland.
As might be expected, the report was not positive about the general situation in Libya and suggested that a weapons deal could breach criterion 2 (“the respect of human rights in the country of final destination”) and criterion 7 (“the existence of a risk that the equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions”) of the European Common Position on Arms Sales.
Despite the report, the Walloon government in June 2009 signed the authorizations to export the weapons. According to court documents, among the arguments supporting the export was a claim that part of the shipment consisted of “less lethal” F303 riot guns, and that the weapons (including assault rifles, submachine guns, machine guns, grenades, ammunition rounds and various accessories like grenade launchers and noise suppressors) were destined to “defend a humanitarian convoy to Darfur.”
Once this claim became publicly known, it struck many Libyans and independent investigators alike as unsupportable. According to a recent report of the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Libya, the 32nd Brigade has been linked to torture and ill-treatment of detainees, indiscriminate shelling and murder of civilians. “The 32nd was not known for protecting humanitarian convoys,” said Ali el Abbar, who fought in the rebel army. “This brigade was known for torture. One could not ignore it.”
Moreover, in recent interviews, many Libyans said that the 2009 shipment ended up, in many cases, with high-ranking officers, special operations teams, and Qaddafi family members or those close to the clan.
Housam Najjair, commander of a reconnaissance unit in the Tripoli Brigade that entered the capital during the Mermaid Dawn operation in August 2011, said his team has found several FN F2000 assault rifles and P90 submachine guns in the possession of what he describes as “loyalist sleeping cells from the 32nd Brigade in the capital.” Those weapons are now being used by the transitional government’s Tripoli Brigade for “special operations and protection of high-ranked individuals.” Among the officials whose security details now carry Belgian arms is Abdelhakim Belhaj, head of the Tripoli Military Council, the de facto commander of the Tripoli Brigade, who, by many media accounts, has ties to foreign jihadists.
The Belgian arms shipped in 2009 require specific ammunition: 5.56x45mm and 5.7x28mm NATO rounds that are less readily available in the North African region than 7.62x54R or 7.62x39mm rounds, the principal cartridges for Kalashnikov assault rifles and medium machine guns. The shortage of ammunition supply could limit the use of those more recently sold weapons. But this limitation doesn’t apply to all Belgian weapons.
The FN FAL (for Fusil Automatique Léger — or light automatic rifle), produced by the Herstal factory and sold by the tens of thousands to Libya during the cold war, fire 7.62×51 NATO cartridges, which the Qaddafi government also stockpiled. The technical merits of this weapon, along with its more readily available ammunition, make it “as concerning as Kalashnikovs when it comes to small-arms proliferation,” said Cédric Poitevin, from the Belgian Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security.
“These older weapons, as well as the ones shipped in 2009, can be used by terrorists and criminal groups in the whole region,” he said. “When it comes to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, we are not talking about terrorists planning punctual and urban actions, we’re talking about a strong group in the region, controlling territories, and used to fighting regular armies.”
He added: “A lot of Belgian weapons are now in circulation in Libya and probably elsewhere in West and East Africa, exacerbating tensions and conflicts.”
The FAL was widely in use among the rebel fighters during the 2011 war, and its price has dropped considerably since the end of the conflict, from a high that crested above $2,000. Nowadays, a FN FAL can be found for about $600 in Tripoli. These are conditions — declining postwar prices — in which weapons are often bought up and resold to other regions by gray- and black-markets.
That, in turn, has heightened concerns that Belgian weapons could factor significantly in another Arab uprising: the intensifying conflict in Syria, where some nearby countries have expressed an interest in actively arming the opposition. This special report will address those concerns, and questions about how much responsibility Belgium and other European countries may share in weapons proliferation in the region, in another At War blog post tomorrow.
Damien Spleeters is a blogger and journalist in Belgium. For this piece he reported from Tripoli, Misurata, Ajdabiya and Benghazi, Libya, and from Brussels. You can follow his other work on his Tumblr blog or on Twitter at @damspleet.
Source: The New York Times