The government in Podgorica is on the defensive regarding its controversial decision to approve export permits for a 2.7-million-euro arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
Balkan Insight — The Montenegrin Foreign Ministry has defended its decision to approve permits for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, repeating that the country will block future permits if evidence emerges that the weapons are being diverted to Syria, Libya or Yemen.
The ministry told BIRN that, in recent months, five permits were issued as there is no international embargo on the export of arms to Saudi Arabia.
Since August 2015, the Montenegro Defence Industry, MDI, the former state-owned arms dealer, has exported 250 tonnes of ammunition and 10,000 anti-tank systems to Saudi Arabia, which has no history of buying or using second-hand Eastern European and Soviet-style equipment.
With some 2.7 million euros worth of arms and ammunition exported to Saudi Arabia since 2015, Montenegro is only the latest country to join a 1.2 billion-euro Central and Eastern European arms pipeline supplying weapons to countries sponsoring opposition groups in Syria.
The arms exported match weapons and ammunition bought by the MDI in 2015 from stockpiles deemed “outdated and of no future use” for Montenegro’s small army.
Although the Economy Ministry issues the licenses for arms export, under Montenegrin law, the Foreign Ministry is obliged to check and verify the end-user certificate, EUC.
This is the document submitted by the company confirming that the weapons will not be diverted to other countries or entities that are under an arms embargo.
The Foreign Ministry explained that through its network of “diplomatic-consular missions abroad”, it has checked the end-user certificates and decided to give consent for the exports to Saudi Arabia.
“In making the decision, the ministry has taken into account other submitted documents and considered that the export requirements were valid,” the ministry said.
It explained that all five permits were related to the export of surplus weapons of the defence and the interior ministries, whose storage poses a threat to the country’s security.
Some arms experts contacted by BIRN, however, believe equipment like that sold by Montenegro is not destined for Saudi Arabia and is likely being diverted to Syria and, to a lesser extent, to Libya or Yemen.
Pieter Wezeman, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a leading non-governmental organisation that tracks arms exports, said: “When Saudi buys, in particular, old munition(s) in Central Europe, I would assume it is not for their own forces.”
Addressing concerns that Montenegro’s outdated weapons could end up end up in the hands of terrorist groups or others who violate human rights, the Foreign Ministry noted that, apart from Montenegro, other EU and NATO member states also sell weapons to Saudi Arabia.
“Although we should not ignore the risk of misuse of exported surplus weapons, the ministry has implemented all its activities in accordance with its responsibilities to reduce this risk to a minimum,” it said.
“In the specific cases from last year, the arms involved several countries which gave us additional guarantees,” the ministry concluded.