Does saving Denel mean arming repressive regimes?

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Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, right, meets with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Denel has been in urgent need of a lifeline beyond government bailouts, but if keeping Denel afloat means arming some of the most repressive regimes then is it really worth it? Maybe it is time to re-purpose Denel into a highly sophisticated scientific research outfit that can continue developing intellectual property, but not the kind that is used as weapons of war. Denel seems to perpetually be putting our declared human rights foreign policy to the test. 

We only just put to bed the issue of Denel selling its IP to Saudi Arabia’s state arms manufacturer given that it is prosecuting a brutal civil war in Yemen. Now we are faced with the prospect that Denel may imminently sign a contract to sell R4.5 billion worth of missiles to Abdel Fattah el- Sisi’s regime in Egypt in order to keep itself afloat without government bailouts. It is obvious that such a deal would solve Denel’s financial misfortunes for a few years, given that it made a R1.76 billion loss last year. In August the government had to pump R1.8 billion into Denel to ensure it could pay its employees and suppliers.

The fundamental problem with this solution to Denel’s problems is that it is in direct contravention of our law, and there is simply no way around that unless we amend our existing legislation. The National Conventional Arms Control Act specifically stipulates that South Africa will not export armaments to countries that abuse human rights, countries in conflict, or countries that are subject to UN or other embargoes. 

It is disingenuous for our Arms Control Committee to say that Egypt is not under an arms embargo, when the legislation makes quite clear that we are not to sell arms to countries that abuse human rights. On that score Egypt is arguably one of the worst offenders. Even though the contract is to supply Egypt with Umkhonto-R missiles which are fired from warships and built to shoot down planes and drones – which are unlikely to be used against civilians – it doesn’t change the fact that it would be rewarding a repressive regime engaged in serious human rights abuses with an arms bonanza.  

There is no question that our government is in a difficult situation given that our economy is in dire straits, and we are trying to find ways to keep our state owned enterprises afloat and ultimately profitable. But part of having a human rights foreign policy is to consistently weigh the behaviour of governments against their people, and make a proper determination as to whether we should be supporting such governments with our made-in-South Africa armaments.

After the mass killing of civilians by Sisi’s security forces in 2013, the European Union imposed an arms embargo on Egypt in order to combat internal repression and extreme violence. The embargo was reaffirmed in 2014 and has not been rescinded given that the human rights situation has been deteriorating ever since. After the brutal killing of Italian Phd student Giulio Regeni by the Egyptian security forces in 2016, the EU parliament passed a resolution calling for the cessation of all forms of security cooperation with Egypt.

The reality in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch, is that ever since 2013 Sisi has crushed all basic rights and presided over  torture which is endemic, enforced disappearances, and the execution of over 500 in extrajudicial killings. Tens of thousands have been detained without access to lawyers or family, and are kept in detention in deplorable conditions for months without judicial review. It has been widely alleged that detainees are deprived of adequate food and medicine. Thousands of civilians have been sent to military courts, and the government has banned independent organisations and peaceful assembly. 

In the past two weeks when hundreds of youth came out onto the streets to protest against government corruption and repression, over 2000 were arrested and interrogated, and security forces have even arrested lawyers supporting detainees. The press has been muzzled, and the government has banned independent civil society and peaceful assembly. 

UN human rights experts have condemned Egypt’s human rights abuses and torture, and Egypt’s human rights review at the UN Human Rights Council will take place next month. The message the world and South Africa needs to send to Egypt is that its human rights abuses will not be tolerated, and that there should be no selling of arms to Egypt while this situation continues. 

All of this will be difficult to accomplish on a political level if concurrently our state owned arms company Denel is preparing to arm the Sisi regime with weapons of war. The National Conventional Arms Control Committee chaired by Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu needs to play its intended oversight role and block Denel from proceeding as planned in contravention of South African law.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.