By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland looks set to loosen arms export rules to allow sales to countries embroiled in civil wars despite a newspaper report that Swiss-made hand grenades probably made their way into the hands of militants in Syria.
State arms maker RUAG Holding acknowledged that grenades it sold to the United Arab Emirates 15 years ago likely found their way to the militants after the report by SonntagsBlick.
Even so, members of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the country’s largest, said on Monday they doubted this would dissuade the government from easing rules on arms exports, a move proposed in June after the nation’s weapons industry asked for the changes.
Two key parliamentary committees have signed off on the new policy, which the government can implement via regulation.
Under the new rules, countries locked in civil wars could buy Swiss arms so long as there was no reason to believe the weapons would be used in the internal conflict.
Proponents of the relaxed rules, including in the SVP, say they are necessary to help protect jobs in Switzerland’s independent arms industry seen by some as crucial to Switzerland’s ability to protect itself in a crisis.
In 2017, Swiss companies won government permission to export 446.8 million Swiss francs (£358 million) in weaponry to 64 countries, up 8 percent. Nearly 50 percent went to Europe, but its share slipped from about 52 percent in 2016. Meanwhile Swiss arms exports to the Americas and Asia rose.
“The matter (of the grenades) is purely emotional and has nothing to do with the easing of Swiss rules governing weapons exports,” Werner Salzmann, president of the lower house of parliament’s security committee, told Reuters.
The new rules, he added, could allow countries in armed conflicts get access to Swiss-made missile defence systems to protect their citizens.
SonntagsBlick reported on Sunday that Islamic State militants were hoarding RUAG-made hand grenades in Syria, based on photographs of weapons seized from fighters.
In a statement, RUAG said the hand grenades may have been among 250,000 it delivered 15 years ago to the United Arab Emirates, before they were transferred to Syria.
“There was indeed a case in 2003/2004 of a RUAG customer having made false end-user declarations and having failed to comply with the requirements it had accepted,” RUAG said.
This is not first time the RUAG grenades delivered to the UAE turned up in Syria: In 2012, they were discovered in the possession of the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Opponents of the proposals said the report underscored problems with tracking weapons once they leave Switzerland.
“This is a prime example of how difficult it is to control arms deliveries,” Martin Landolt, president of the Conservative Democratic Party, told the newspaper.
RUAG said it had not delivered grenades to Arab countries since 2003/2004.
A Swiss government spokesman could not be reached for comment on Monday.
RUAG is the main Swiss arms exporter. The Swiss arm of Germany’s Rheinmetall also makes weapons.
(Additional reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Alison Williams)