Ruud Gielens on Historical Taboos

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

The role of European politics and how to deal with their ‘neighbours’ has for sure often been one of cowardice and questionable decisions.

For decades Europe’s politicians have been supporting brutal dictatorships around their borders, going from the states who formerly belonged to the Soviet Union, over the Middle East, to the whole of North Africa.
It is European policy to engage in arms deals with these dictators, and tolerating them although they are only interested in the well-being of an economical elite and their most inner circle.

Our leaders have put money in these dictators for whatever reasons they thought were beneficial to them personally, economically or strategically.
And thus excluding any notion of equal cultural, social or economical exchange with the citizens of these countries.

A little more then 18 months ago, we witnessed what we called the ‘Arab Spring’,
a spring that has turned into a dark and very cold winter by now.

How much these revolutions were directed against their brutal dictators, against a system of oppression and for equal justice, they were also directed at us, for our negligence, for the fact that we chose to deal with these leaders instead of actively trying to negotiate with the people’s movements.

The revolutions in the Arab world and their violent aftermath have made it for the first time very obvious and clear what fierce monsters, we western countries have created.
Militaries that are far greater, bigger and definitely more violent than our own.

A military apparatus that has had decades of time to develop, and is not willing to give up its consolidated powers.

An army that doesn’t draw back from attacking it’s own people, engaging in brutal, merciless military campaigns that have left no one uninvolved.
Their sole objective: destabilizing the country to that extent that the people depend on your ‘force’.

One can undoubtedly say that my army -the Belgian one- is still of any importance.

Compared to the one of a country like Lybia, our army is quite frankly a joke.
Until the fall of Ghafadi the Lybian Army had roughly the same size as the Belgian one,
although it has only half of the inhabitants.

But having a laughable military doesn’t mean, that we don’t produce arms. 

One of our national prides, is an arms factory called “FN Herstal”, it is owned for one hundred percent by the regional Walloon government, and controversially exported a variety of small arms to the Lybian "Khamis" Brigade in 2009, meant to protect humanitarian convoys to Sudan.
After Gaddafi's fall, the weapons fell into the hands of rebel fighters and civilians.

Belgium is the only country in the European Union where the power of granting export licences for arms rests with regional authorities and not in federal hands, putting the door open for all sorts of conflicts of interests.

When the uprisings spread through the Middle East and people across the world saw the images of unarmed citizens fighting security forces in the streets of Arab cities, a great number of European governments were forced to begin accounting for the weapons they had sold for decades to the very rulers they now found themselves abolishing.

We all remember the pictures of protesters holding up tear gas canisters stamped "Made in USA", showing the everlasting US support for autocratic Arab regimes.

But the United States were certainly not their sole-provider, Egyptian riot police fired shotguns made in Italy. Bulgaria has led weapons sales to Yemen, and let’s not even mention the amount of weapons supplied by Russia to the Syrian army, let’s stay focussed on European ‘democratic’ nations.

In the five years prior to the Arab Spring, at least 20 governments - including Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Serbia, Switzerland and Belgium, sold weapons worth more than 2.4 billion dollars to the five countries that have faced - and violently combated - popular uprisings: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

After security forces turned on protesters with deadly force, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, suspended arms sales for an unknown time, suspending not ending.

Detailed data on arms sales is unreliable, since national reports may differ from those provided by the European Union and the United Nations, and regulations change year to year, but a rough estimate tells us that Italy sold $554 million in arms, mostly to Libya, followed by $145 million from Germany and $111 million from Serbia. 

Even the ever so peaceful Finland, is specialized in selling high profile sniper rifles to the regimes of Bahrain and Egypt.

As protests continue in Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, the weapons supplied in the past years will for sure be used again, and regimes will see their supplies met, despite campaigns by activists and politicians to force their halt.

The countless attacks on civilians in all sorts and forms, in Syria, Yemen, Egypt; visible and invisible for they eye of the camera have made it very clear that there is not much hope under these fierce military rules, even if some of them still claim to be transitional.

In Egypt, since the beginning of the revolution, the estimate of the people killed by army bullets are already well over 1000, close to 9000 injured, and an estimated 13000 in military trial.
This makes it more than clear that this regime has other ambitions and sees no point in making the necessary changes upon the road to a more social, just and less corrupt society.

In Syria we hear about massacres every week now, activists estimate the death toll at more then 20.000 at this point, but off course no one can tell for sure.

The impunity, with which these military regimes have abused their powers, makes it all to clear that the international community, is still supporting to this day these old regimes.

The head has gone but the body is still there and recovering very fast.

Some of those close to me have experienced first hand in recent months the wrath of the old regime to the revolutionaries, they were brutally tortured and sent to military courts where they were sentenced on false accusations.

These are the excesses that our leaders did not think of when supporting the dictators, unfortunately and therefore we are now in this mess…

Why doesn’t the European Union take the lead in a global Arms Trade Treaty, pushing for more stringent national controls.

When we deliver arms we need to know how and why these arms will be implemented, the particular unit in the security forces, and really examine the capacity and sanity of that end user to use those weapons lawfully.

But as long as billions of dollars in profit remain available, many countries seem eager to put memories of the Arab Spring behind them, the European government doesn’t want these regimes to “lose control" and remain focussed on the fulfilling of earlier reached and to them beneficial agreements.

How can this taboo be overcome?

In these countries a generation has stood up, who has had enough of these practices and wants to negotiate with us on an equal level, humane and as a peer, not more or less but certainly not repressed.

A generation that has been fighting an uneven battle now for 18 months, and are getting very tired, a generation that needs encouragement and some sort of reconciliation.

It is therefore also up to us, to take a decision on how the future of these countries will look like, they don’t need our support to create a political system, they are intelligent and strong enough to do that themselves.

We don’t have to impose our virtues and forms of government.

But we can help by choosing the side of the movement and the people, by condemning the military rules, and by putting an unprecedented pressure on our politicians to cut of these arms-deals that have led to armies so powerful and strong that it’s influence stretches far beyond its ‘normal’ rule.

This is our task, they will do theirs.