Norway is the home of the Nobel Peace Prize but it’s also a significant weapons producer, and their exports shot up last year. Now critics in and out of Parliament are firing off complaints over sales to authoritarian regimes and areas near armed conflict.
“This is a violation of the fundamental intentions in the foreign ministry’s guidelines for export of defense material,” Rasmus Hansson, spokesman for the Greens Party, told newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday. Hansson, who served the past four years as a Member of Parliament, has criticized Norway’s weapons sales earlier and remains alarmed over the Norwegian defense industry’s growth and activity.
State statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) released figures this week showing that sale proceeds from Norway’s weapon exports reached NOK 3.4 billion last year (USD 436 million). That’s up by nearly NOK 1.5 billion from the year before, marking an increase of nearly 80 percent.
Aftenposten reported that around half the value of the weapons exported went to fellow NATO member countries. Of them, the US bought NOK 655 million worth of Norwegian defense material and Poland NOK 382 million.
Sales to non-NATO nations, however, were nearly triple those in 2016, mostly because Oman bought “weapons and weapon parts” for more than NOK 1 billion. That makes Oman, ruled by an absolute monarchy/sultanate that Hansson calls a “dictatorship,” Norway’s single-biggest weapons customer after it ordered and took delivery last year of a Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) from state-owned Kongsberg Gruppen.
Hansson claims that Norway’s foreign ministry, which is charged with issuing licenses for weapons exports, is obligated “to evaluate a series of political question tied to democratic rights and respect for fundamental human rights” in the countries taking delivery of Norwegian arms. He objected to the agreement to sell arms to Oman in 2014, and asked the Parliament to cancel the order.
“This (Oman) is a strong, oppressive dictatorship that does not respect fundamental human rights, pure and simple,” Hansson told Aftenposten. “Even though the weapons are defensive, there’s no doubt they strengthen military capacity for a strongly undemocratic and oppressive regime.”
Moreover, notes Hansson, Norway should emphasize that it won’t allow sales of weapons and ammunition to areas where there’s war or threatened war, or to countries involved in civil war. Oman borders on Yemen, which is embroiled in a civil war that’s left thousands of civilians dead, wounded and now facing famine and a cholera epidemic. Saudi Arabia, another of Oman’s neighbours, has controversially intervened.
The Socialist Left party (SV) and Changemaker, the youth group for the national humanitarian organization Kirkens Nødhjelp (Norwegian Church Aid) agree with Hansson. “We see a scary trend where we’re basing more and more of our (weapons) sales on markets in authoritarian countries,” Changemaker leader Tuva Krogh Widskjold told Aftenposten. “It shouldn’t be so.”
Widskjold noted in an email to Aftenposten that Norway already has exported defense material “to the warring sides in Yemen, to the military dictatorship in Thailand and now we see an enormous increase in sales to the authoritarian country Oman.” She seeks rules that “won’t strengthen military capacity to dictators and authoritarian regimes.”
Gina Barstad, foreign policy spokesperson for SV, also stated that Norway “should not sell weapons to countries led by oppressive dictators with documented systematic violations of human rights.” SV was part of the former left-center government coalition (led by Labour’s Jens Stoltenberg, who’s now secretary general of NATO) that cleared the way for weapons exports to Oman. Barstad claimed SV called for stronger rules then, too, but lacked support.
Weapons sales defended
Audun Halvorsen, a state secretary for the Conservative Party in the foreign ministry, defended the weapons sales to Oman, saying the licenses granted for export are in line with the guidelines and the Parliament’s conditions. “The ministry evaluates every single license application in terms of the rules and guidelines for export control,” Halvorsen told Aftenposten. “If the ministry sees an unacceptable danger that the military equipment will be used internally or to commit serious violations of human rights, an export license won’t be issued.”
Halvorsen also noted that regulations for export control offer the possibility to retract, suspend or limit licenses, although “that doesn’t happen often.” He also contended that the Norwegian government is “extremely concerned” about the situation in Yemen, noting how it recently suspended valid licenses for exports of weapons and ammunition to the United Arab Emirates.
SV, meanwhile, has called for an immediate halt to all sales and exports of weapons, ammunition and other defense hardware to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia and Oman, in addition to the Emirates. Barstad added that SV continues to work towards that goal, and hopes the consequences of the war in Yemen will now prod the Norwegian Parliament into action.
Hansson, meanwhile, is not satisfied with the foreign ministry’s response. “UD (the ministry) will certainly note that Oman has declared itself neutral to the catastrophe going on in Yemen, but the Parliament hasn’t just chosen to forbid sales to countries but to areas where there are conflicts. That’s very sensible because it’s difficult to discern relations between neighbouring countries when there’s a war.”