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Taxpayers in the dark about arms deals

Ilham Rawoot

South Africa's arms exports show that human rights are not a priority when the government takes decisions on trade policy, according to arms experts.

Rwanda is accused of arming the M23 rebels. (Melanie Gouby, AFP)

This week the national con­ven­tional arms control com­mittee, headed by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, provided Parliament with its quarterly report.

The committee is responsible for controlling the country's trade in conventional arms and rendering of foreign military assistance. According to the Act governing the committee, South Africa has an obligation not to trade in conventional arms with states that are engaged in repression, aggression or terrorism.

The quarterly report shows that, between April and June this year, the committee approved R2.7-billion in arms exports, including sales worth R500 000 to Rwanda, R1.7-billion to the United States and R2.3-million to Zimbabwe.

In February, it was announced that Denel would receive a R700-million cash injection to save the aerostructure section from bankruptcy.

"The defence industry needs to be more accountable to the public because our tax money is going into it," said Guy Lamb, senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies.

Schizophrenic foreign policy
"We've lost our moral compass on arms exports and there is no synergy or co-ordination between the department of international relations and co-operation and the national con­ven­tional arms control com­mittee."

Lamb said because the department and committee were pursuing foreign policy and taking decisions "in a vacuum", South Africa had developed a "schizophrenic foreign policy".

"The public needs to hold the committee to account and we need information to do that," he said.

Rwanda was in the headlines in June because of a United Nations report that found that Rwandan President Paul Kagame's government was sending arms to the M23 militia and six other armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

M23 rebels have been accused of committing violent acts, including rape, execution and forced recruitment, in eastern Congo.

This week, Human Rights Watch Africa researcher Anneke van Woudenberg told the Huffington Post: "The M23 rebels are committing a horrific trail of new atrocities in eastern Congo … and the Rwandan officials supporting these abusive commanders could face justice for aiding and abetting the crimes."

Kagame denied the allegations and said the weapons could have been bought anywhere on the continent.

Significant equipment
The weapons South Africa sold to Rwanda are category A arms – sensitive major significant equipment comprising conventional arms such as explosives, large-calibre arms and automatic weapons, guns and missiles, bombs and grenades, tanks, fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and naval vessels that could cause severe casualties and major damage and destruction.

The United States bought more than R1-billion worth of arms in categories C, which is nonsensitive equipment that is usually employed in direct support of combat systems or operations, but  have no inherent capability to kill or to destruct, and D, which is nonlethal equipment that is limited to demining, mine clearing and mine-detecting equipment and all nonlethal pyrotechnical and riot control products.

The national con­ven­tional arms control com­mittee does not know whether the equipment sold to the US is being used in Iraq, because it would be classified as a domestic transfer rather than a secondary export, which the US government would have to inform the committee about.

The South African government has repeatedly criticised the war in Iraq. Last month, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim referred to the "horrors we are seeing in Iraq".

Official statements from the United Nations have been saying that the war, which the US has waged since 2002, is "illegal" and in breach of the UN Charter.

The committee report also shows that South Africa sold weapons to Zimbabwe in category C, but it does not break down the sales of which actual weapons or equipment were sold and from which companies they were procured.

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