In May 2021, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared up again in the Gaza Strip. Israel carried out 1500 air, land and sea strikes in eleven days. Palestinians fired around 4000 rockets. Over 250 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were killed.
The US, the UK, Spain and Canada openly supply weapons to the Saudi-led coalition.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Yemen are just two examples among dozens of active conflicts currently raging worldwide.
Is Europe playing a role in fueling these conflicts? If so, what is that role?
The Italian Defence Industry
Italy is the fourth biggest weapons exporter in the EU. Its defence industry refused to talk to euronews about what and who they sell to, but anti-military activists were very vocal.
Francesco Vignarca, a member of Rete Pace e Disarmo (The Peace and Disarmament Network), took us to an Aircraft and Aerospace Division Factory and Airport that produces and tests military planes. They are in Venegono in northern Italy and are owned by the company Leonardo. Before they belonged to Aermacchi. Italy's military aircrafts are made there.
We had to stop at what looks like railway crossings, but there were no trains, only planes. Filming them is strictly forbidden. However, we did see an M346 take off. It's a small aircraft used for pilot training.
Francesco tells us that these particular planes are used "in one of the oldest, but also in one of the most continual conflicts: The Israeli-Palestinian war".
"For years Leonardo told us it wasn’t true, but now there's evidence and there is no doubt that there really is an FA version, a Fighter Aircraft version, basically a fighter-bomber", Francesco explains.
According to him, Italy isn't only providing the Israeli Air Force with planes that could be used to train pilots that carry out attacks, but they could also be providing planes actually used for the attacks themselves.
Leonardo is the largest Italian arms producer and it is ranked 12th worldwide. The Italian government is its largest shareholder and owns 30% of the company. Leonardo declined our invitation to give their side of the story. The Federation of Italian Defence firms (AIAD) did not reply to any of our interview requests either.
Francesco explains that "Italy has exported, in recent years, more than 50% of its weapon systems to the Middle East and North Africa". Some of the items it exports are armored vehicles, aircrafts and ships. He says that amounts to three billion euros a year in arms actually sold.
The documentary, 'Produced in Italy Bombed in Yemen' by the NGO Mwatana, indicates where some Italian exports have ended up. The footage shows the aftermath of a bombing in Northern Yemen that was carried out in October 2016 by the Saudi-led coalition. Lives were lost in this attack.
A Yemeni NGO field officer combed through the area of the attack and found parts of some explosives. The serial numbers on the debris showed that the bombs had been produced by the Italian Company RWM, a subsidiary of the German Rheinmetall.
Saudi Arabia was Italy’s main client last year after Egypt and Qatar in the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest arms importer. After it engaged in the war in Yemen, its arms imports skyrocketed. It showed an increase of 61% from 2016 to 2020.
European Weapon Manufacturers
However, Italian arms aren't the only ones ending up in Yemen. The evidence of European weapons there is well documented in videos from the investigative journalism project 'Lighthouse reports'.
Belgium, Germany, France and Spain are the other European countries that have allowed exports to Saudi Arabia. Pressured by anti-war activists, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, The Netherlands and Italy have stopped or restricted their exports to Riyadh. But not France, the EU's first arms exporter and the world's third-biggest.
Amnesty International says they have evidence of France selling various kinds of military equipment to the Saudi-led coalition. French artillery, ammunition and combat vehicles have been found in Yemen.
The Sale of Arms
So are European arms sales allowed everywhere, at all times?
No - Several international treaties state that war and human rights violations should, in theory, prevent such sales. The main ones that indicate this are the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty and the European Common Position. They both thoroughly regulate arms exports and they follow the same principles.
Despite these regulations, the European map of exports speaks for itself.
France, Germany, Spain and Italy are the main exporters in the EU. In the last five years, France's main clients outside of Europe were Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but it also sold arms to the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Israel, Ethiopia and Afghanistan among many others.
Germany has exported to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, but also to countries like South Sudan and Somalia. Spain and Italy’s exports have also headed to the same volatile destinations.
How is this happening?
Experts agree that the weak link in all international treaties and national laws is enforcement. Green MEP, Hannah Neumann, can explain this.
She says that "we have one common position on arms exports in the EU, but we have 27 national interpretations, 27 export systems and an increasing divergence in actual exports of member states."
She further states that:
"The common position is legally binding, but at the moment, the European Union doesn't have any way to enforce it. It is the Member States that decide which kinds of licenses they give for arms export. But the systems in the member states are very different. This creates a lot of problems lately because there are many, many loopholes for companies. That is exactly what we politically we need to stop".
Sales on the Rise
The Defence industry is considered a strategic sector for national governments. Despite the pandemic, international arms transfers have remained close to their highest levels since the end of the cold war. Middle East arms imports have grown the most in the past five years, driven mainly by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar.
South of Paris, the French Defense company, ARQUUS, is proud to say they try to make the world safer. Their main client is the French Government.
The company is the French leader in Light and medium-sized armed vehicles with wheels. According to them, they currently have 25 000 operational vehicles in the army, an equivalent of 90% of all their wheeled vehicles.
In order to be competitive on an international scale, the company needs to invest, innovate and export. Arquus says their annual exports vary from 20% to 50%.
We asked the company’s president, Emmanuel Levacher, how they can be sure their products don’t fall into the wrong hands.
To him, "the defence industry in general, the European and French defence industries, are responsible and abide by the rules" He believes its their "responsibility is to stick and conform to these rules".
However, he says that they can't "physically or forcibly follow this equipment for years on end because they last several years, even several decades. So that's the real topic of conversation, but there's not always a practical solution".
The majority of European arms firms say they comply with international treaties to the extent required by national laws.
So who is ultimately responsible for exporting weapons to war-torn countries?
Governments grant export licenses to weapon manufacturers and tend to profit from sales as they often have stakes in the armament industry.
Is that vested interest compatible with international treaties regulating sales?
Francesco Vignarca highlights that large parts of Italy's military industry is state-owned.
"There is always an attempt to favour exports with inter-governmental agreements. They also allow the possibility for these large companies to sell even when the criteria mentioned in the laws should prevent it. There are always ways to say ‘no, but in this case the violation of human rights is not officially recognised’, or ‘the conflict is not declared’", he adds.
However, this is not unique to Italy. Amnesty International has been very vocal about France’s role in the Yemen war.
Sarah Roussel, a member of this NGO says that "on one hand, you have the minister of foreign affairs calling this a dirty war and on the other hand, France is still exporting military weapons to the two main countries engaged in this conflict. So, yes, you could say that France is being hypocritical".
In Spain, the government has faced parliament repeatedly over its arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Madrid issued 26 export licenses to Riyadh last year, a business worth 215 million euros.
Both the UN and the European Parliament have formally asked sales to Saudi Arabia to stop due to its central role in the Yemen war.
But according to Xiana Mendez, the Spanish Secretary of State for Trade, "there is no embargo, there is no export ban, nor is there a ban on a European Union level. This must be made very clear because otherwise, we would be in breach of the international treaties, agreements and resolutions we are bound to".
According to international law, European countries are not only banned from selling weapons to warring countries, but treaties also stipulate that weapons manufactured by third-party countries heading to crisis zones cannot transit through the continent.
Port Workers Speak Up
Another reason why arms sales to conflict zones continue almost unabated is that boats carrying weapons, European or not, are not properly checked in its ports.
The boats of the Saudi cargo company, Bahri, have been in the eye of the storm since 2015 when the war in Yemen started.
Port workers were among the first to notice that its vessels were not carrying common goods.
In Genoa, Jose was among the most active dockworkers collecting evidence about their cargo loads and he reported it. This cost him his job last year. He now works as a union manager.
He tells us that dock workers see all kinds of things going through the ports "containers full of explosives, tanks, attack helicopters, ammunition crates, power generators, drone parts".
Dockers accuse the authorities of deliberately keeping silent about the vessels’ movements. They also say there is a systematic lack of checks.
We made some calls to see what the authorities say about this.
The port police didn’t want to be recorded, but they confirmed what Jose said. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs told us that local government is in charge. The latter didn’t want to discuss this topic with the media, indicating a kind of secrecy around these boats.
The more the dockers showed evidence of arms cargos, the louder the protests across Europe grew.
Pressure from civil society and a series of legal actions managed to halt some export licences. In some cases, the itinerary of these so-called “war boats” was altered.
In Spain, protests have forced Bahri boats to avoid the port of Bilbao. But activists say the Saudi ships still load weapons in the country’s southern ports.
In France, human rights groups have prevented Bahri boats from loading weapons several times and in Paris there have been multiple demonstrations against exports to Yemen.
In Genoa, the Saudi vessels don’t load weapons anymore.
'A Business of War'
The latest Israeli-Palestinian unrest has stirred European pacifists. In May, a ship allegedly transporting weapons to Israel stopped in Livorno. Dockers refused to load the cargo, a first-ever for Europe.
We headed to Livorno with Genovese dockworkers. Their local counterparts organised a meeting with human rights activists to plan action against weapons in ports.
This network of Italian experts, dockworkers and pacifist movements is getting organised. It has forged ties with other similar movements in Europe. It wants to expose what's going on.
Carlo Tombola from The Weapon Watch says that "the supply chain taking arms to the world’s most critical war grounds was hidden by a lack of transparency and it is now coming to the surface. This business is revealing itself as a business of war".
A call to action is also ongoing in Germany. The Greenpeace boat, Beluga II, is sailing through Germany's main ports demanding a stricter export law.
Alexander Lurz, one of its peace and disarmament campaigners, says that what they want is for the law to "ban all exports out of the European Union and European equal States".
At every layover on the Beluga's trips around Germany, Greenpeace collects signatures for this new export law. The NGO also has a photo exhibition that gives an exclusive insight into arms fairs that are usually off-limits to the public. They are thought-provoking shots.
What is the ultimate purpose of Europe's defence industry? Is it to protect people? Is it for profit or to gain political and economic influence? What about human rights?
One thing is for sure, the weapons business is not like any other.