Business first: Italy and arms sales

Article by Matilde Monteleone | Illustration by Niccolò Cedeno

If during this period of global pandemic most of the productive activity in Italy has been blocked, if not slowed down, there is instead a sector of the economy that has never stopped growing: that of arms. The Decree of 22nd March last year has in fact allowed the continuity of the activities of the aerospace and defence industry as they are recognized as activities of strategic importance for the national economy.

This decision sparked dissent from research centres for peace and disarmament and highlighted the dependence of the Italian economy on the sale of arms abroad. A condition that is even more evident when comparing the continuous cuts in Italian health care (from 2001 to 2019 funding decreased from 7% to 6.6% of GDP) with the increase in military investment, which in 2018 accounted for 1.4% of GDP.

At this point we have to ask ourselves, to whom do these weapons go? According to the Government Report on Italian arms exports, which reports the authorization and sales data for 2018, the main recipients outside the European Union and NATO would be particularly unstable countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The sale of arms to these countries is difficult to explain, especially if one takes into account Law no. 185 of 1990, which prevents the export of arms to countries in a state of armed conflict, contrary to the principles of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and countries whose governments are responsible for serious violations of international human rights conventions. In particular, after the Regeni case and the Zaki case, this type of trade relationship between Italy and Egypt appears highly controversial.

The arms sector in Italy

In Italy the arms market is dominated by Leonardo, a company that deals with defence and security (mainly production of helicopters, aircraft, security and information systems) and whose main shareholder is the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

To understand Leonardo’s productivity and greatness, it is interesting to look at the top hundred arms companies in the world compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). According to this ranking, the Italian company is in ninth place, preceded only by giants of the sector such as Lockheed Martin or Boeing.

Where Italian weapons go

Once the relevance of the weapons sector in Italy has been clarified, it is interesting to see where these weapons actually end up. According to the data of the Annual Report on arms sales to foreign countries, in 2018 only 27.2% of export authorizations were destined to NATO-EU countries, which represent the most important international alliances for Italy, while the remaining 72.8% were destined to EXTRA NATO-EU countries.

Export authorizations 2018. breakdown by geopolitical area. Relazione sulle Operazioni Autorizzate e svolte per il Controllo dell’Esportazione, Importazione e Transito dei Materiali di Armamento

The most alarming detail is that, of these non-NATO-EU countries, a great amount present highly controversial political situations in clear opposition to Law No 185/1990. In fact, according to the parliamentary document, among the first twenty-five countries that import arms from Italy are Qatar, Pakistan and Egypt.

List of the first 25 importing countries, Relazione sulle Operazioni Autorizzate e svolte per il Controllo dell’Esportazione, Importazione e Transito dei Materiali di Armamento

Weapons to Egypt

The publication of this report has aroused the immediate reaction of various research centres for peace and disarmament, which have condemned the Italian Government for the continuity of trade relations with countries whose governments are known to be authoritarian and disrespectful of human rights. The situation is even more paradoxical if we consider the case of Egypt after the death of the researcher Giulio Regeni, still without justice.

According to the data of Rete Disarmo, Egypt of General Abdel Fatah Al Sisi has in fact become the recipient country of the largest number of licenses, going from 7.1 million euros in authorizations for sale in 2016 to 871.7 million euros in 2019. Just a few days ago, a maxi contract of about 11 billion euros was definitively authorized for the sale of armaments to Egypt, including two Fremm military ships, automatic weapons, helicopters equipped with machine guns, bombs, rockets and missiles, equipment for firing direction and equipment for military training. 

The Italian government’s attitude seems to be aimed at balancing, on the one hand, the economic interest and protection of the armaments industry and, on the other, the search for the truth about the Regeni case. But how can the commercial issue be separated from the political-diplomatic one? Is it really possible to continue to sign billions of euro contracts with a government that has always been reluctant to shed light on the murder of a young student? Apparently the answer is yes.

Egypt is without a shadow of a doubt the case of an authoritarian government that violates human rights, as the most recent vicissitudes of the Zaki case and the Sarah Hijazi story show, yet for Italy this is not enough to diminish or block economic relations. Despite the fact that Law No 185/90 explicitly violates the sale of arms to this type of country, the lack of media attention and the strong economic interest mean that this direction can continue without any complications.

Undoubtedly, obtaining the truth for Giulio Regeni is not easy in a country with corrupt authorities and almost certainly involved in his own murder, but this is not why the Italian Government should stop asking for justice and investigate, beyond any economic agreement. As the politician Lia Quartapelle has stated, “Egypt cannot be considered as a country with which to maintain normal relations between allies. (…) There is no trade policy without security policy”.

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