Saudi arms ban 'a matter of principle': Germany's FM in conversation with The New Arab

Saudi arms ban 'a matter of principle': Germany's FM in conversation with The New Arab
The German foreign minister spoke to The New Arab about the Middle East during the high level General Assembly meetings at the UN.
9 min read
04 October, 2020
Heiko Maas spoke to The New Arab [Getty]


The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas spoke to the New Arab's sister Arabic-language publication Al-Araby al-Jadeed in during the high level General Assembly meetings at the UN, which were conducted remotely from New York last week due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Al-Araby al-Jadeed’s senior correspondent at the UN Ibtisam Azem conducted the interview remotely.

The questions focused on the top current issues in the Middle East including the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal, bans on arms sales to Saudi Arabia by Western countries, developments in Palestine, Libya, Syria, as well as the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny and the climate crisis. Germany became a non-permanent member of the UNSC for a two year term until the end of this year.

Below is the text of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.

Ibtisam Azem: The USA announced recently that they are reactivating the international sanctions against Iran (snapback) and said that all states and companies are bound by them. Germany, together with France and the UK, as partners in the nuclear deal, rejected the US move and said that you are not bound because the US had withdrawn from the deal. Yet even before that, after the US withdrawal in May 2018, Iran claimed that the EU did not fulfill your promises as partners (mostly in regard to financial institutions and trade).

What is your comment on that? Do you believe that reactivating the sanctions (Snapback) will affect the way European, and particularly German, institutions deal with Iran, in order to avoid US payback?

Heiko Mass: Germany, France and the United Kingdom remain committed to preserving and fully implementing the JCPoA. This agreement is currently the only instrument we have to keep Iran’s nuclear ambitions verifiably contained under robust international oversight. We urge Iran to refrain from any further JCPoA violations. On the contrary, Iran should take concrete practical steps towards full compliance with its nuclear commitments.

Our position on snapback is very clear: Only JCPoA participants may notify the UN Security Council of significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPoA by Iran. The US left the agreement in 2018 and therefore no longer has a right to initiate the process called “snapback”. We have taken note of the sanctions the US administration has re-imposed on Iran and we have expressed our regret in this regard. We also decided not to join its “maximum pressure” campaign. EU sanctions against Iran remain lifted to the extent required under the JCPoA. This, in turn, also means that the EU arms embargo remains in force until 2023.

IA: In October of 2018, following the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Germany banned the export of arms to Saudi Arabia. The war in Yemen was an additional reason for that decision. This last March you renewed this ban until the end of the year. The ban does not cover *all* types of weapons. Why? Do you expect the ban will be renewed again and why?

HM: I think it is important to explain what has been happening here: The Federal Government has taken the decision not to approve any new licenses for exports of military items to Saudi Arabia for the period up to 31 December 2020 as a matter of principle. We will decide in due course whether this policy will be upheld beyond 2020. The decision does not exempt any types of military goods, but does take into account our international obligations within joint production programmes with our European partners and allies. No military goods will be licensed for export to the region or anywhere in the world if the export poses a threat to human rights or international peace. 

IA: On the Syrian question, you have said on many occasions that there will be no reconstruction and no permanent and holistic solution without accountability. But how can you achieve this if you could not even pressure Russia and China to open two crossings instead of one in the 'cross-border aid resolution' of the UN security council?

HM: I think these are two separate issues. We have always been crystal clear in our conversations with the Syrian government: no reconstruction until a genuine political process under UN auspices is firmly under way. We are fully convinced that a credible political process is the only way for sustainable peace and a key prerequisite for normalising relations with Syria. Lending Damascus international legitimacy at this early stage would make the Syrian regime less likely to engage constructively in a political process.

On cross-border aid, it is no secret that the resolution we passed was not the result we had been hoping for. I was appalled by the cynicism with which some Security Council members acted to prevent life-saving aid from reaching hundreds of thousands of civilians. But the cross-border resolution remains an important tool for supporting the population in north-eastern and western Syria.

IA: Germany, and the EU, have expressed on several occasions their support to the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine in accordance with related UN resolutions and international agreements. On the ground, Israel continues its policy of building settlements, not granting building permits to Palestinians, especially in East Jerusalem, and in imposing its siege on Gaza. However, Israel continues to receive preferential treatment when it comes to economic or military support. Why would Israel feel under pressure and change its occupation policies when there are no consequences and if it feels no pressure from Germany and the EU, but rather the contrary?

HM: The past months have proven: more peaceful relations are possible in the Middle East. From our perspective, this is also true for Israelis and Palestinians. Just last week, I met with my colleagues from France, Jordan and Egypt to discuss how we can harness the recent dynamic developments for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. We agreed that both sides should renew their commitment to the agreements that they have signed in the past and continue cooperation on that basis. There is an urgent need to restore confidence. The recent accords signed between Israel and Arab states can inspire more confidence in a political path towards peace.

Our position remains clear: Only a two-state solution will fulfil the legitimate rights and aspirations of both parties. There is a risk that people in the region will lose hope – and from despair, hostility can arise.

IA: Since the agreement on the Berlin conference points, the number of states violating the ban on exporting weapons to Libya has increased. Do you believe that it is possible to achieve a political agreement that can hold and end the war in Libya? How can you achieve that when the interest of the Libyan fighting parties as well as the regional and international powers are so divided?

HM: The arms embargo against Libya remains key for solving the conflict. If we do not end the constant stream of weapons, military equipment and personnel, there is no incentive for the parties to the conflict to end their destructive behaviour.

We have just recently seen that positive developments through negotiations are possible. Take the Montreux talks between representatives of all relevant Libyan parties and groups, which the UN facilitated. Peace in Libya is possible, and we have no doubt that the Libyans are tired of conflict and want to rebuild their country. But in order to strengthen the UN-led process, it is of utmost importance for the international community as a whole to unite behind these efforts. That is something we mean to support with the Berlin Process and I am very pleased that I will co-chair a side-event on Libya together with the UN Secretary General during the UNGA on this question.

IA: The human rights violations in Libya regarding African immigrants and asylum seekers have been sufficiently documented. There is severe criticism in regards to EU policies in Libya. Germany is an integral part of the EU and one of its primary policy makers. Do you think that European countries, because of their immigration policies and their support to Libyan coast guards and for returning refugees despite knowing the terrible fate they face, bear some, if not all, responsibility for what is happening to African refugees in Libya?

HM: In our ongoing discussions with Libyan actors, we keep expressing our demands to close all “Detention Centers” while creating sustainable alternatives for migrants and refugees.

The safety of life at sea is a legal and humanitarian obligation. Therefore, we support the ongoing EU measures aimed at enabling the Libyan Coast Guard to perform its search and rescue obligations in the Mediterranean Sea in accordance with international law. Another important aspect of these measures is of course combatting the networks of human traffickers that put the lives of vulnerable refugees and migrants at risk.

IA: You  have signaled that you will possibly impose sanctions against Russia in the event that you don’t get answers in regards to the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny. What are the latest developments in this regard? Would these sanctions include the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline?

IA: This is not a bilateral matter between Germany and Russia. Germany is only the bearer of bad news. Russia must explain to the international community how the use of a banned chemical nerve agent on its territory was possible in the first place. Until now, three laboratories in three countries have unequivocally detected the nerve agent – all independently of one another. This only reinforces our position. We will of course discuss our next steps together with our European partners, taking any Russian reaction to the incident into consideration. The 27 EU member states remain committed to a joint international response and reserve the right to take appropriate measures. 

IA: The USA declared its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. Most countries, including European countries, are far from achieving the goals they pledged. Climate is one of the main issues you worked on during your United Nations Security Council membership. What is the biggest challenge facing the world in this context in your opinion? And how can the world move from pledges and promises to implementation, when the strongest country (USA) is not part of it?

Germany has put ‘climate and security’ on the agenda of the UN Security Council as we see increasing evidence of how climate change is heating up conflicts and threatening stability in many parts of the world. I chaired a high-level debate of the Security Council in July which showed that the vast majority of UN member states is backing our agenda.

The EU already succeeded in decoupling economic growth from CO2 emissions. The economy has grown by 50 per cent since 1990. During the same time period, we reduced our emissions by 25 per cent, clearly exceeding the EU’s reduction targets.

Implementation of the Paris Agreement is actually making progress. Last week, China announced its target to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, which is quite good news. In the United States, many states, cities and private enterprises keep introducing bold measures to protect the climate. Our hope is that the US will soon reinforce these efforts at the federal level, too, and rejoin the Paris Agreement.

Ibtisam Azem is a Palestinian writer and journalist. She works as a senior correspondent for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper in New York.

Follow her on Twitter: @IbtisamAzem

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