Arms trade, EU border security and Sudan

Protestor in front of Parliament.
Protestor in front of parliament.

Yesterday, the Darfur Union and Doorbraak organised a demonstration against the violence in Sudan and the EU policy of migration control. The first speech came from Mark Akkerman of Stop Wapenhandel, an independent research and campaign organisation against arms trade and arms industry. Here are the video and text of his talk.

Imagine having to flee from or via Sudan, heading for Europe. And then being stopped on the way or at the European borders. Because the EU has one thing on its mind: keep refugees out. No matter where they came from, no matter what they’ve experienced, no matter what they are fleeing from. Now imagine being the CEO of a large arms company. For you this means: money. The military industry profits from war and repression, and then again from border security.

Arms embargoes and arms sales

In het Nederlands

There has been an EU arms embargo against Sudan since 1994, and a UN embargo since 2004, after the escalation of the war in Darfur. As with every arms embargo not all countries follow it. China, Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine are the primary arms suppliers to the regime of Omar al-Bashir. This has everything to do with power and economic politics. China’s arms exports to Sudan are closely connected to oil exports the other way around. France, Bulgary and British merchants were also selling arms to Sudan when the EU embargo was already in place. And Sudan is still welcomed as a guest at international arms fairs.

The Netherlands generally respects international arms embargoes. Nevertheless it has no clean hands either. Police boats and military trucks found their way to Sudan in spite of the embargoes. For these exports no permit was needed, because they weren’t considered to be weapons. They are used in the conflict and repression however. With the trucks ammunition and troops are transported. The Dutch government is way too lax in tackling such exports. The German government, for example, is much stricter when it comes to exports of military trucks.

Many of the arms in internal wars, such as in Sudan, have been circulating for decades. They go from one conflict to the next by illegal trade. A common phenomenon: firearms that were used in the war in Yugoslavia have ended up in wars all over the world. Firearms used in the more recent war in Libya have also popped up in other conflicts in the region. Almost all these arms were sold legally at the start of their deadly career. One more reason to stop arms trade altogether.

EU border security

Arms industry profiting doesn’t stop at this. The so-called “refugee crisis” has opened up a whole new box of opportunities. The EU is focused on keeping refugees outside Europe. This has resulted in the use of ever more military means at the EU borders and beyond. With deadly consequences: refugees are forced to look for ever more dangerous migration routes. Last year saw a sad record of over 5.000 refugees dying at the Mediterranean Sea.

Large European arms and technology companies earn big money from EU border security. Airbus is one of the most important profiteers. For tax reasons its headquarters are in the Netherlands, in Leiden. Other companies include Thales and Safran from France, Leonardo-Finmeccanica from Italy and Indra from Spain. They not merely profit from the EU border policies. They also have a very active and effective lobby to push for more and more militarised border security.

Border externalisation

This is not just at the European borders. More and more the EU forces third countries to function as outpost border guards. Sudan is no exception. Despite the dictatorship and the crimes against humanity, the EU cooperates with Sudan to stop refugees.

Last year the EU marked Sudan as one of the sixteen priority countries to cooperate with in “border management”. There was a lot of criticism from NGOs and activists then. The EU said it had no concrete plans to provide military support to Sudan. However, a report launched last week concluded that “the EU [is] disbursing millions of euros to the Sudanese government for technical equipment and training efforts geared toward stopping the flow to Europe of migrants from Sudan and those from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa who come through Sudan”.

Sudan’s border force consists of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This is a former very violent militia, now integrated into the army. EU funding and training for “capacity building” in border security is at risk of going to this group. A group which has been denounced for committing war crimes.

The EU has also provided “border management” training to Sudanese police forces. Next to the EU cooperation with Sudan, Italy and Germany have bilateral police cooperation agreements with the country. This has resulted in deportations of Sudanese refugees from Italy. As a journalist said: “The EU wants to turn Sudan into a large prison for migrants, and that’s why all of the partnerships they have built are with the police”.

From the moment EU announced it was going to cooperate with Sudan on migration, refugees have suffered the consequences. On one day hundreds of Eritrean migrants were arrested and deported to Eritrea, a country with a possibly even worse dictatorship. And just last February a peaceful protest of Ethiopian refugees was met with police violence. Dozens of refugees were deported and punished with whippings and fines.

So: despite an arms embargo against Sudan, some countries have no qualms about arming the dictatorial regime. Just the same, the EU has no qualms about stopping refugees at its borders. Or working together with this same regime to stop them from leaving or travelling through Sudan.

These are political choices. Money and power are deemed more important than people and human rights and peace. The arms industry profits, time and again. The results are a country plagued by war, repression and poverty, and refugees dying on their journey to a safer place.

We have to work together to stand up for other choices. For an end to arms trade and military operations. For refugees’ rights and economic justice. For human rights and peace.

Mark Akkerman