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History of arms exports reveals SA’s double standards

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Picture: Supplied – SA defence and technology company Denel produces armoured vehicles, among others. The annual report of conventional arms for the year 2000 shows exports to Israel with an estimated value of R1.7 million, the writer says.

By Atilla Kisla

Arms exports are not a neutral act – they never have been. They have the potential to perpetuate a conflict and potentially contribute to violations of international law. The situation in Gaza exemplifies the horrendous impact that arms such as bombs and rockets can have on civilians.

Cognisant of the threat deriving from arms exports, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his opening remarks at the Cairo Summit for Peace on October 21, 2023, on the Palestine situation: “We, therefore, call on all parties to exercise restraint and on all state actors to desist from providing weapons to either of the sides to the conflict.”

South Africa’s stance in the Palestine situation, calling for a cessation of arms transfers and standing for the protection of human rights and civilians, embodies guiding principles and criteria that are set out in its legislation that regulates the export of South African arms, namely the National Conventional Arms Control Act.

However, a broader look at South Africa’s arms exports reveals a picture that does not appear consistent with human rights principles and South African legislation. The list of countries importing arms over the years contains governments with questionable human rights track records and states that have engaged in armed conflicts similar to the continuing conflict in Palestine.

Given the reality of arms exports, the question is whether the government makes promises that it cannot keep, thereby creating a practice of double standards. South Africa’s most recent stance on arms exports, judging by the most recent statements of the government and officials, is that the country is against arms exports to parties in an armed conflict as well as against arms exports that contribute to violations of international law or an escalation of a conflict.

On August 20, before the BRICS summit earlier this year, Ramaphosa set out in his foreign policy address that “(t)he key pillars of our foreign policy include the promotion of human rights, peace and stability”. Such an anti-war policy found further emphasis in the president’s opening remarks with respect to the Palestine situation at the Cairo Summit.

International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor confirmed the call for a cessation of arms exports in the Palestine situation, during the Ministerial Statement in Parliament on November 7, 2023.

Director-General Zane Dangor added in a television interview on the Palestine situation that “in terms of our own legislation, we cannot sell arms to any country in conflict”. Despite such statements, the question is whether such policy statements are reflected in South Africa’s arms export practice. One would think that South Africa applies such principles of advocating against arms exports in conflict situations uniformly across all its foreign affairs. However, a closer look into South Africa’s arms export history suggests otherwise and raises serious questions about double standards.

During a conflict, independent experts often call for a cessation of arms exports as they know about their immense impact of escalating or perpetuating a conflict. While there are many arms exports related to countries that raise questions about their legality and reasonableness, a conflict situation that stood out over the past decade is the Yemen conflict.

Similar to the Palestine conflict, the Yemen conflict has resulted in the immense suffering of the civilian population. The conflict in Yemen began in 2014 and slowed down only in 2022. It has resulted in an estimated displacement of 4.5 million people, 377,000 deaths and 21.6 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The two countries that have engaged in this conflict are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries are also on the list of countries that import South African arms. From 2014 until 2022, there has not been one year in which South Africa did not export arms to one of the two countries.

Looking back to the early 2000s, the National Conventional Arms Control Committee lists Israel in its annual report of arms exports for 2005, 2006 and 2007 with the description of “repairs”. All the listings do not indicate any arms export rand value.

However, the annual report of conventional arms for the year 2000 is more significant in this context. It shows exports to Israel with an estimated value of R1.7 million. The report indicates Type B and C exports. While Type B refers to weapons and ammunition smaller than 12.7mm calibre, Type C includes electronic equipment, systems such as flight control, tactical observation, propulsion, missile tracking and guidance and weapon firing sights. As it is unclear from the report when the export occurred, it is noteworthy to say that 2000 is also the year of the Second Intifada during the continued occupation by Israel. It must be mentioned that 2000 was also before the NCAC Act was enacted, which introduced stricter principles and criteria for arms exports. Nevertheless, such exports leave a bitter taste, given the circumstances in which they occurred.

One cannot help but ask why the South African authorities were acting with such inconsistency. While an explanation for the exports to Israel in 2000 might be that South African law did not prevent such exports, what is the excuse for arms transfers to states engaged in the Yemen conflict? Why is there such a discrepancy in the government’s stance on arms transfers in the Yemen and Palestine situation? Why did the South African government not advocate against arms transfers in the Yemen situation? Did the government not care enough about Yemeni civilian lives? Or did economic interest deriving from arms exports supersede the protection of human rights?

What standard was applied when they allowed the transfer of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE? It appears that a different standard was applied to enable arms transfers in some situations, which questions the credibility of South Africa’s stance on arms exports. Atrocities such as war crimes are only one sad reality of the conflicts. However, certain actors can make a difference, ease the suffering, and de-escalate. As identified by the South African authorities in the Palestine situation and many other experts, countries that transfer arms can make such a difference and avoid escalating or perpetuating a conflict. However, the standard applied to such arms transfers must be applied uniformly and consistently. That requires not only nice speeches but also action.

As set out by Pandor in a recent speech: “(M)aking good speeches does not assist. I may feel good that I had the right rhetoric at that platform, but if the next day my rhetoric has not led to action, my speech was useless.”

South Africa’s statements on cessations of arms exports cannot apply in the isolated situation of Palestine. They must be followed by action. Otherwise, “such statements are useless”.

Action in this case requires South Africa to apply standards equally in all situations relevant to its arms exports, irrespective of how important the relationship with the buying country is. As the sole decider of its arms exports, it is in the hands of the South African authorities to prevent such arms exports that are not in accordance with the law.

Fighting for human rights principles and international law is always easier than living up to them. South Africa’s actions in the form of future arms exports will show whether it is willing to make difficult decisions or whether it accepts that itself might contribute to the perpetuation of conflicts resulting in heartbreaking pictures of innocent civilians from conflict areas.

Dr Atilla Kisla is the International Justice Cluster Lead at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.