With the author: Hovstein Kviseth
The more than one hundred-page report from the Office of the Auditor General documents poor follow-up of the regulations by the export control authorities. Here, a very inadequate control of Norwegian exports of munitions is revealed, despite relatively strict regulations.
The month after the Office of the Auditor General's findings made headlines, the government came up with a new strategy to further develop the arms industry and thus contribute to even more arms exports from Norway. However, this happened in silence. In May, Aftenposten revealed the contents of a secret document in the Office of the Auditor General, and the debate on Norwegian arms exports to the emirates escalated. At the same time, the Storting's Control and Constitution Committee concluded its comments on the Office of the Auditor General's investigations, in which the parties placed themselves in their respective trenches. The opposition believes the lack of control over arms exports is the government's fault. The government responds by abdicating responsibility and points out that the previous government also opened up for the export of munitions to controversial destinations.
The Office of the Auditor General's investigations thus conclude sensationally brutal.
The Office of the Auditor General's investigations thus conclude sensationally brutal. The criticism goes most strongly beyond the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which are the ones that issue the license for each arms export, following an application from the arms industry. The Police Security Service (PST), which is to prevent, detect and investigate illegal exports, is also heavily criticized. The customs service, which is to control the actual export of munitions, is criticized for its lack of efforts to ensure that the export control regulations have the intended effect.
Why does the Office of the Auditor General say something about arms exports?
The Office of the Auditor General has been appointed by the Storting to supervise how the government and the authorities do their job. The purpose is to strengthen confidence that the government and the authorities exercise their responsibilities efficiently, ethically and in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.
Here, everyone gets on the hump, but it is worst for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Office of the Auditor General uses careful language when concluding in its reports. In practice, they have four levels of criticism. If they say that something is "very serious", it is in reality a full crisis. This means that they have found something that has very serious consequences for society or affected citizens. Then we talk, for example, about the risk to life and health. If the criticism is described as "serious", it correspondingly means that the case has serious significance for society and affected citizens, or that the sum of errors and omissions is so great that this is considered serious in itself.
Criteria for allowing Norwegian arms exports1959: The Storting decides that weapons and ammunition produced in Norway shall not be sold to areas where there is violent conflict or the likelihood of an outbreak of violent conflict. 1997: The Storting tightens the criteria and demands that recipient countries must respect basic human rights. This is to prevent Norwegian-produced equipment from being used for internal repression.
A practice that does not follow the regulations
The Office of the Auditor General's investigation mainly comprises munitions exports in the period 2016–2018. This is an export approved under the current government. Overall, the survey shows «significant weaknesses in the various links of the authorities' system». Here, everyone gets on the hump, but it's the worst for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is especially their assessments of the countries that are opened for export to, which are criticized here.
The Storting deals with regulations and practices for Norwegian munitions exports every year. This lays down basic guidelines for how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to process applications for a license for arms exports from industry. In addition to the Storting having adopted a number of criteria for when the export of munitions should not be permitted, they also assume that such exports should only take place after a "careful assessment of the foreign and domestic policy conditions" to which one seeks to export. The Office of the Auditor General believes that it is "highly reprehensible" that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' land assessments do not provide a sufficient basis for decision-making, as prescribed by the Storting.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs still maintains that there is "no information" that Norwegian defense materiel is on
weigh in Yemen.
This audit shows that almost half of the land assessments the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had, which entailed a permit for arms exports at the beginning of 2019, were prepared before 2010. The land assessments are not only outdated, but superficial and scarce. It is the assessment of 28 recipient countries that has been examined here. The risk that the weapons in question may go astray, or be used for undesirable purposes, has not been assessed in half of the cases examined. The review also deals with 136 license cases that have been processed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the period 2016–2018. Thousands of such licenses are granted annually, so the survey covers a very limited selection here. Of the 112 cases concerning the export of munitions, the survey shows that only in 19 of them is there a written assessment of the danger that the materiel can be used for internal repression in the recipient country. Assessment of the risk that the weapons may go astray has only been made in 6 of the 136 cases. The Office of the Auditor General describes this as "highly reprehensible".
The Minister of Foreign Affairs' disagreement with the Office of the Auditor General
The Storting's consideration of the Office of the Auditor General's report led to an exchange of letters between the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Control and Constitution Committee. These letters, together with the Foreign Ministry's response in the media, testify to a clear disagreement with several of the Office of the Auditor General's conclusions. The members of the Control and Constitution Committee from the parties that form the government's basis in the Storting, ie the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Green Party, consistently side with the Foreign Minister in this disagreement. At the same time, all members of the committee from the opposition, ie the Labor Party, the Socialist People's Party and the Socialist People's Party, side with the Office of the Auditor General. Thus, the parties have placed themselves in predictable trenches.
The most important disagreement the Foreign Minister has with the Office of the Auditor General's conclusions concerns the Foreign Ministry's risk assessments that Norwegian war materiel may go astray. The Minister accepts that there is room for improvement here, but points out that assessments in the Ministry take place without this necessarily being included in the documents the Office of the Auditor General has examined. The Minister points out that a two-stage system has been established, where the land clearance is only an opening for the license application to be processed in the ministry. The application itself is assessed so thoroughly and individually against the established guidelines and criteria. The argument here is that the whole process of being granted a license application for export, and not just the first part, which is the land declaration, must be considered if one is to claim that the decision basis for allowing export is not good enough.
With regard to exports to the emirates, the Minister of Foreign Affairs also does not agree with the Office of the Auditor General that the decision basis for allowing exports was insufficient. In his letter to the Office of the Auditor General, the Minister of Foreign Affairs replies that the assessments made are in line with the guidelines, and that all key and relevant criteria have been thoroughly assessed. This includes the human rights situation, the risk of internal repression and the risk of humanitarian law violations in the war in Yemen.
The debate over arms exports to the emirates and possible use in Yemen
At the time of writing, the debate about export controls is raging, even outside
party politics. Aftenposten's revelations, from a classified document on which the Office of the Auditor General bases its investigation, contributed greatly to this debate (see fact box). In short, the document shows that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs allowed extensive Norwegian arms exports to the emirates, despite the fact that the ministry had a clear suspicion that these weapons could go astray.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs still maintains that there is "no information" that Norwegian defense equipment is going astray in Yemen. In the context of export control, this is a weak argument. This is because it is not what is found of Norwegian war material on the ground in Yemen, but what risk assessments the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assumes will not happen, which is the core of the export control's mission. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also done a poor job in this case. Both SIPRI's arms trade expert Pieter D. Wezeman and PRIO's senior researcher Nicholas Marsh share this view.
Sverre Lodgaard is a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Policy. He is clear that the Foreign Ministry's yes to arms exports to the emirates after the country joined the coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015, violates the 1959 decision. Lodgaard maintains that the crux of the matter is not whether Norwegian weapons have ended up in Yemen or elsewhere. In war it is very difficult to find out. The question is rather whether Norway has taken a precautionary approach as required by the regulations, by not exporting to areas where there is war, or where war threatens. The answer to this is no, Lodgaard concludes.
Assistant director at the Norwegian Institution for Human Rights, Gro Nystuen, also points out that the Foreign Ministry's interpretation of the 1959 decision is not in accordance with Norway's international obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty, Article 7 in this case. All exports that could lead to violations of international humanitarian law, also due to actions taken by states invited by one of the parties to a civil war, will fall within this provision, she says. Another Norwegian academic with a great deal of experience in the field is the aforementioned PRIO researcher Nicholas Marsh. He concludes that no state should export arms to members of the Saudi-led coalition. This is because it has been involved in gross violations of humanitarian law.
Civil society's response
In addition to the heavyweights in peace research, human rights and foreign policy, the chroniclers are also on the ball. Among them is Dag Hoel, the author of the book Peace is not the best, about Norwegian arms exports (2017). He points out that the Foreign Minister must be held responsible for the secrecy surrounding exports to the Emirates. Aftenposten's revelations thus came from a secret document that both the Office of the Auditor General and the Storting thought should be published. Despite this, the Foreign Minister chose to keep the document secret, arguing that access to it could harm the kingdom's security. Hoel believes, however, that what is damaged by the leak of the document is the Foreign Minister's credibility.
The Foreign Minister has for several years assured the Storting that the regulations are followed, but this case shows that the government rather prioritises facilitating the arms industry, so that it will have access to markets, according to Hoel. He believes this has trumped the consideration that we should not export to countries where there is war, civil war or where war threatens. Hoel considers the role of the arms industry in this to be an exploitation of the room for maneuver given to them by politicians. The failure of the system is therefore considered fundamentally political.
Organizational life is very united in its criticism in this case. Save the Children and Changemaker in particular have long been involved in the public debate on arms exports to the Emirates. The latter also believes that the Office of the Auditor General's revelations should lead to the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Among the other civil society voices in the debate, all of which criticize exports to the Emirates, are also Amnesty, Norwegian Church Aid, Norwegian Peace Corps, Red Cross, International Women's League for Peace and Freedom and the umbrella organization for peace organizations, the Norwegian Peace Council.
A number of new routines and measures will be introduced within the civil service in both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Justice and Emergency Preparedness to rectify what has now been pointed out by simple export control. In particular, the customs service, the Police Security Service and the Foreign Ministry's section for export control give high priority to this. Arms exports have also moved far higher on politicians' agendas due to the above. During the consideration of the Office of the Auditor General's report in the Storting's Control and Constitution Committee, SV did not agree with the majority on its proposal to initiate an investigation of arms exports to the Emirates after the intervention in Yemen in 2015. Both Rødt and SV still promote such proposals in the Storting. new at the time of writing. The debate on arms exports to the Emirates is thus far from over – the same applies to the general debate on arms exports and export controls.