Norway’s reputation as a force for peace and good has come into question
The nation’s foreign ministry has been accused of exporting weapons to the UAE despite ‘harbouring suspicions’ they were being used in Yemen
A controversy has erupted in Norway over allegations that the foreign ministry allowed the export of weapons to the United Arab Emirates until the end of 2017, despite “harbouring clear suspicions” they might be used in the civil war in Yemen.
The foreign ministry, which handles applications for weapons export licences, is also responsible for checking applicants comply with Norwegian regulations.
The Yemen conflict, which exploded into a full-blown civil war in 2014, sees Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting against the government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf states.
Norwegian broadsheet Aftenposten broke the story on 2 May, alleging it had got hold of a classified document from the office of the auditor general.
“Between 2014 to 2018, weapons and ammunitions worth 280 million Norwegian kroner (NOK) (€28m) were exported to the Emirates. It was first and foremost so-called A-material, i.e. weapons and ammunition suitable for killing,” the paper wrote.
“The increase coincided with the Emirates joining a Saudi-led coalition which in 2015 intervened in Yemen, where a bloody civil war between the government and the Houti militias was taking place”.
A few days later, on 4 May, the same newspaper argued the Emirates were also known for being a ‘free haven’ where weapons could quickly be sold on to others, and slammed the arguments put forward by the foreign ministry as “thin and tendentious”.
The claim relates to the period before 2018. In January of that year, Norway suspended the sale of weapons to the UAE over concerns they might be used in the Yemeni conflict.
On the same day, 4 May, Aftenposten also published a letter by foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide.
Eriksen Søreide firmly rejected the allegations, underlining that it was she who, two months into her mandate in December 2017, decided to stop exports of ammunition and weapons (so-called A-material) to the UAE on behalf of the government. She explained it was precisely a precautionary measure due to the fact that “the situation, particularly the one related to Yemen, was difficult to follow”.
She added: “Exports of defence-related material such as communication equipment, image and video equipment as well as electronic or protective equipment were also significantly limited.”
Eriksen Søreide further argued that, based on investigations carried out through Norwegian embassies, delegations and international networks, there was no evidence substantiating allegations that Norwegian defence material had gone astray and been used by the warring parties in Yemen.
Nicholas Marsh, an expert on arms export and a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, told me that the information provided was too limited to tell us exactly what material has been exported to the UAE, and whether it might have been used on the ground in this specific conflict.
For example, different types of ammunition are being used with different weapons, and it is impossible to know which ones, since “some weapons may be used in Yemen; others may not”.
Besides, there is no recent video or photographic evidence that would prove use of Norwegian exports on the ground. “It is a war zone, which means that there are inherent difficulties in journalists reporting,” Marsh wrote in an email.
It would be one thing if Norway exported [arms] only to other democratic countries that respect human rights. But it doesn’t
Nonetheless, he said, “some information may be obtained from video taken in Yemen and later distributed, for example by posting it on social media”.
One episode Marsh refers to took place in 2018, when Houthi rebels claimed they had recovered a marine robot, an underwater vehicle called a REMUS 600, which belonged to the enemy, off the western coast of Yemen.
The logo of the Norwegian state-owned technology group Kongsberg (which operates among others in the shipbuilding, defence and aerospace sector) and its subsidiary Hydroid were clearly visible on footage and pictures the militias posted online – though it was not clear when or where the footage had been filmed.
Kongsberg, with headquarters in the homonymous city south-west of the capital Oslo, is present in more than 40 countries; at the time the company declined to comment on the pictures and on where the components of the vehicle might have been produced. Also on that occasion, Norway’s foreign ministry told daily newspaper Verdens Gang it had no information that defence material from Norway was being used in Yemen.
With regard to the REMUS 600 footage, the ministry said it had seen it only through the media and could not confirm what kind of vehicle that was.
In her recent letter to Aftenposten, Eriksen Søreide strongly reaffirmed the government’s position on the issue: “We all agree that we do not wish Norwegian weapons or other defence material to be used in the war in Yemen,” she wrote, adding that allegations that this might be the case “are taken very seriously by the Foreign Ministry and followed up”.
She concluded that following the 2018 episode a thorough investigation had been launched. But the circumstance could not be verified “neither through our embassies, delegations nor international networks”.
In a recent, separate letter published in daily newspaper Bergens Tidende, foreign affairs state secretary, Audun Halvorsen, once again reasserted that there was no evidence that Norwegian weapons had been, or were being, used in Yemen. He also underlined that Norway has pledged 200m NOK (€20m) in humanitarian aid to Yemen for 2021 – aimed at providing food, medicines and life-saving emergency aid, as well as protecting civilians.
That came on top of the financial aid granted to the World Food Programme and to the UN high commissioner for refugees, which also is being used for projects in Yemen by the respective organizations, Halvorsen added.
But the unpleasant thought that the country that assigns the Nobel Peace Prize might be involved in what the United Nations has described as “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis” has not been completely dissipated.
“I think there is a big disconnect between the assumption among many Norwegians that [their country] should be a force for peace and good in the world, and its arms export policies,” said Marsh. “It would be one thing if it exported only to other democratic countries that respect human rights. But it doesn’t.”
I can understand a country like the UK selling out its principles for billions of dollars. But why is Norway doing that?
Despite the fact that Norway’s weapons industry cannot compare to that of Germany and France, it is nonetheless a much more important exporter than some larger states, Marsh explained.
“According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Norway was the 19th largest arms exporter over 2015-20. It exported a lot more than, for example, Austria, Denmark or Portugal, which are comparable in terms of population size,” he added.
What’s more, the largest Norwegian defence companies are partly state-owned.
“One notable aspect is that it’s difficult to see why Norway needs to export to places like the UAE or Saudi Arabia. The volumes of trade are a tiny proportion of total exports.
“Even its arms exports mostly go to NATO members or other democracies,” Marsh said. “I can understand a country like the United Kingdom selling out its principles for billions of dollars. But why is Norway doing that for such small amounts of money compared to the rest of the economy?”
‘Right to know’
Following the recent revelations by Aftenposten, Eriksen Søreide warned the paper that leaks of classified material are “serious, and a breach of (our) security laws”.
But Aftenposten staunchly defends its decision to report on the document.
“Our members of parliament have issued strict rules when it comes to Norwegian weapons export,” news editor Tone Tveøy Strøm-Gundersen wrote in an editorial.
“It is our task to control whether the administration follows these rules, and the public has a right to know”.
The Norwegian parliament ruled already in 1959 that Norway would not sell weapons to countries at war or at risk of war, including a civil war, and it is up to the Foreign Ministry, the customs and the police security service to make sure that this regulation is not breached.
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