Federal minister for foreign affairs Didier Reynders has called on the regional government of Wallonia to suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, following the revelation that the arms were used in the civil combat in Yemen, in breach of an agreement allowing the export. The arms were sold by two companies based in Wallonia – Mecar in Nivelles and FN Herstal in Herstal – and a licence for export granted on condition the weapons and munitions involved would only be deployed within Saudi Arabia itself. However as The Brussels Times reported earlier in the week, the protest group BelgianArms has uncovered evidence that the weapons, intended for the Saudi National Guard, turned up in the hands of Saudi-backed forces in Yemen.
“It is true that there is a debate in Liege between the jobs of 15,000 employees of FN, and the difficulties encountered with certain customers like Saudi Arabia as far as human rights are concerned,” Reynders, who is also defence minister, told RTBF radio. “Personally, I have always advised the regions to move towards an embargo. I have also argued for a European embargo, and backed moves in that direction.”
However the regions, in Belgium’s federal system, have their own responsibilities on foreign relations and international trade, and the powers of the federal government are strictly limited. Wallonia has allowed arms sales to Saudi Arabia on the basis of conditions which cannot, after all, be imposed. Flanders, on the other hand, has called a halt to all arms sales to the Saudi regime. The issue is complicated by the fact that FN Herstal is not only a major employer in the Liege area, and an important export earner – the latest arms contract is worth 150 million euros – but its sole shareholder is the Walloon regional government.
Willy Borsus, the region’s minister-president, promised his government would be more vigilant, while ignoring Reynders’ call for an embargo.
“The moment it appears that the weapons have ultimately not been used in the country or the place for which they are intended, the Walloon region will react,” Borsus said. “The reaction could take the form of the suspension of licences already agreed, which is what is now in question.”
This week it was also revealed that the latest shipment of arms to Saudi Arabia was shipped out of Antwerp only last weekend. In response to a letter from the lawyer of the Belgian League for Human Rights, the administrator-general of Customs and Excise, Kristian Vanderwaeren said, “The shipment present on board the vessel Bahri Yanbu was made under the authority of a valid licence which had not been suspended.”