Soldiers (Image by Daniel Hadman)

Licensing to Kill?

Playing by the rules

There are quite a few guidelines to which companies and countries selling armaments abroad have to pay heed. The most important ones, in addition to the requirement that one should be reasonably sure who the end-user will be, are perhaps the general rule that one does not export weapons to a country at – or on the brink of – war; the policy that one does not sell weapons to anyone who is likely to use them to violate human rights; and the necessary preventive measure that one should pay particular attention to anything that can help countries develop or deliver weapons of mass destruction. Most of these requirements seem to be common sense. There is, however, more to arms sales than just the obvious.

“The trouble with all these policies is that no one ever decides what [they mean],” says Nicholas Marsh, project leader for the Small Arms Database at NISAT, the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers. “Countries export arms and ammunition to Israel, and excuse it by asking: ‘well, are they really at war?’ No one defines war. The same is happening now with, say, Pakistan and India. ‘Is it a war?’”

Then there’s the issue of being a credible and reliable actor in a highly competitive market. Even if an order violates one or more of the guidelines, accepting it and delivering the product may still be the most realistic option.

Commenting on information that Bofors Defence was in competition with two other companies for a SEK 20 billion contract with the Indian military, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh recently clearly stated that it would be out of the question to issue licenses for export of any new weapons systems to India. The tense situation between India and Pakistan made the notion of such an export unthinkable. It is not that easy, however.

“There are agreements that the Swedish state has entered into with the Indian state,” says ISP’s Tjäder. “And those agreements will be honored.”

The agreements in question concern mainly reparations, modernization, and updates of equipment that India bought from Swedish companies years ago. There is justifiable concern that breaking an agreement with India may send a signal to other potential customers that Swedish companies can’t be trusted to be available when they are needed.

“If you have two legal documents,” SIPRI’s Ian Anthony explains, “and one of them is a contract, then that may have greater weight than a directive, which may in essence be a guideline. If there’s no such contract, the guidelines will be followed.”

Tjäder also emphasizes that nobody really knows how long it will take for the Indian government to make a decision on who gets the valuable contract.

“It may take a year,” he says. “And in a year the situation down there may be completely different.”

Indeed, not many days after Tjäder speaks, there are some signs of a cooling of the conflict. While the future is still uncertain, however, Henebäck confirms that the contract is a follow-up delivery as far as Bofors is concerned. He also points out that situations like this one is ISP’s raison d’être.

“Technically,” he says, ”when we send in the applications, it is so that [the ISP] can decide in cases like this, when there is doubt. There are quite a few questions that need to be answered…”

When Henebäck continues, his words are a mocking echo of Marsh’s.

“Is it a war,” Henebäck asks. “Have they declared war? Is Kashmir a war zone?”

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