The potential of Five Percent Campaign’s “Don’t Buy Don’t Sell” campaign concept is well illustrated in Germany’s recent civil society activities.
After Turkey’s latest “Operation Olive Branch” was exposed to show that German-made tanks were used against Kurdish groups in Syria (who were significant local allies of the USA’s fight against the Islamic State), the outcry forced German Foreign Minister to announce that the Turkey’s request to upgrade tanks was put on hold. This followed on from the earlier commitment by the coalition (Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) to stop approving arms exports to countries involved in the Yemen humanitarian catastrophe. As in the case of Yemen, the commitment only came about because of both the intensive pressure by the civil society groups on Social Democrats (who as a partner of the governing coalition had an abysmal record of upholding their own principle of not selling arms to questionable regimes ) and revelations of man-made unprecedented human catastrophe in both Syria and Yemen to the general public.
Germany, even though deeply conscious of their own aggressive militaristic past,nevertheless do not shy away from selling weapons. As a consequence, they are now the fifth-largest arms exporter in the world. Since taking power in 2014, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government (of CDU and SPD) has approved over €25.1 billion ($30.9 billion) worth of arms sales, an increase of 21% compared to the 2010-2013 government, which was also run by Merkel. This firmly put the 2014-2017 coalition government the most prolific arms seller in modern German history. The biggest increase comes in exports to non-EU and non-NATO nations – by 47% to €14.48 billion – the top importer of German arms is Algeria while 3 of the top 10 are in the Saudi coalition against Yemen, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
German weapons manufacturers employed roughly 55,000 people in 2015, according to data collected by the Hans-Boeckler Foundation. The Leopard tanks are produced by Kiel-based Krauss-Maffei Wegmann Maschinenbau. Other major German defense manufacturers include Rheinmetall, Thyssenkrupp and Heckler & Koch.
Germany is home to 3 million ethnic Turks and hundreds of thousands of Kurds and has a long history of arms sale to Turkey on the contentious ground of ‘self-defense.’ Germany is the second-largest supplier of arms to Turkey and has delivered over 700 of the tanks to Turkey since the 1980s, including 354 Leopard 2 battle tanks between 2006 and 2011. There has always been the suspicion that the tanks might be used by the Turkish military against Kurds, who are their own citizens, now the penny has dropped that the tanks were used against Syrian Kurds, who were instrumental in the defeat of the Islamic State in the Northern Syria, the outrage among German Kurds and the concerned public was substantial.
The German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel who has been arbitrarily imprisoned by the Turkish government for nearly a year explicitly expressed to the German government that he was “not available for any dirty deals” to win his freedom. In early 2018, Turkey requested for Germany to allow German arms maker Rheinmetall to overhaul Turkey’s fleet of Leopard 2 tanks with better armour and defence systems.
Norbert Röttgen, a member of Angela Merkel’s CDU party and chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said it was “completely obvious” that Germany should not provide the upgrades and the intervention by Turkish forces was “illegal, contrary to international law and counter-productive with regard to fighting ISIS”. Furthermore, Turkey could not claim to be acting in self-defence because “there have not been any attacks on Turkey by Kurdish forces in Syria”.
With such political pressure from both the left and right, Merkel’s government finally backed down and froze the arms sale to Turkey.
This came on the back of another civil society pressure on Germany’s arms export policy. Civil society groups protested that German-made patrol boats may have been used in Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Yemen, where 90 percent of all goods are imported, and as many as 8 million people are facing starvation. The Social Democrats, despite their nothing-to-be-proud-of record of approving arms sales while in the coalition government, have long been pushing for tighter restrictions to countries involved in the war in Yemen, and finally in the latest talks to form a new coalition government got concession from Merkel’s CDU party to ban arms exports to those countries.
Don’t Buy Don’t Sell
When civil societies are weak or non-existent in arms-buying countries, it is vital that civil societies in the arms-selling countries take up the challenge. The arms trade between Germany and Turkey clearly shows that the political pressure from the civil society can certainly make a difference, but it also demonstrates some limitations that the civil society needs to overcome.
First, since the pressure only came from one side, in this case German civil society calling for “Don’t Sell,” it leaves Turkish Government free to come back for a deal whenever they have (political) advantageous leverage to play, for example refugees NATO security and releases of political prisoners. This means that the pressure has to be that much greater than in the absence of a strong Turkish civil society counterpart – demanding “Don’t Buy” . In such a case, the political damage from finalising such an arms deal would potentially outweigh any benefit that either government may gain from the deal. It also means that the campaigning must be for the long-term, which brings us to the second point.
Any success is potentially and likely to be temporary – a stopped deal can be resumed; a ban can be overturned; a commitment can be ignored. In 2017, Germany publicly announced they would put all big arms exports requests from Turkey on hold. The fact that a year later the government was forced again to freeze potential battle tanks export to Turkey perfectly demonstrates why campaigning against arms trade is for the long-haul and campaigners have to be constantly vigilant against any potential broken promises, rules and principles.
We have to wait and see whether and for how long Germany will stop selling arms to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes. We can but hope that the example set in Germany by the “Don’t Sell” campaign could in time, see a powerful Turkish solidarity campaign develop, working together in defence of the present and future victims of those arms deals. Such solidarity campaigning is one vital way to push back the immoral military-industrial complex.