A displaced family carries gallons of water in Tripoli, Libya. South Africa has been heavily criticised for selling six military cargo planeloads of military equipment to Turkey when it is deeply entrenched in the armed conflict in Libya, says the writer. File picture: Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
A displaced family carries gallons of water in Tripoli, Libya. South Africa has been heavily criticised for selling six military cargo planeloads of military equipment to Turkey when it is deeply entrenched in the armed conflict in Libya, says the writer. File picture: Ismail Zitouny/Reuters

NCACC must block munitions sold to countries at war

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published May 17, 2020

Share this article:

When South Africa has sat in UN Security Council meetings, we have advocated strongly that countries should comply with the arms embargo on Libya. When South Africa participated in the Munich meeting on the war in Libya, we also used the opportunity to appeal to countries to adhere to the arms embargo on Libya.

As a country, we have also supported the UN secretary-general’s appeal for a worldwide ceasefire during the pandemic. But over the past fortnight, the Twitter feed of international experts and personalities has heavily criticised South Africa for selling six military cargo planeloads of military equipment to Turkey in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic when Turkey is deeply entrenched in the armed conflict in Libya.

Under the Covid-19 lockdown regulations, only essentials like medical supplies and South Africans stranded abroad are allowed to be transported across borders. How six Turkish military cargo planes were allowed to enter the country and return home full of military hardware supplied by Rheinmetall Denel Munitions (RDM) is baffling.

What is even more bizarre is that the key institutions that should have ensured that such military hardware never ended up in the hands of a government like Turkey, which is at war in both Libya and Syria, either were unaware of such a transaction being in the offing or turned a blind eye to it.

Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence is supposed to be empowered to provide oversight over such transactions, but given that they only receive quarterly reports regarding arms transfers, the co-chairs have said they were unaware of any military hardware being sold to Turkey.

Given that Turkey is a major protagonist in the armed conflicts in Libya and Syria, had the standing committee been briefed on the impending arms sales to Turkey, they could voice their objections and held the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) accountable for their decision to issue a permit earlier this year to RDM to supply military items to Turkey. The standing committee must, of necessity, be fully briefed on South Africa’s arms sales ahead of time so that they can play their oversight role. But as things currently stand, such reports to the standing committee are after the event.

According to the public minutes of the March 5 meeting of the Joint Standing Committee with the

chairperson of the NCACC and the minister of defence, co-chairperson Mamagase Nchabeleng is quoted as having said: “South Africa should not be supplying arms to people who are fighting like it was a world war. The committee should ensure that equipment sent to other countries does not land up in the hands of people

who do not use it responsibly.” He then proceeded to ask about the Saudi Arabia dealings.

As the body which determines to whom South Africa can sell arms and the nature of the armaments, the NCACC is supposed to play a pivotal role in exercising good judgement in order to protect South Africa’s reputation as a responsible member of the international community. Whatever the nature or category of military

products that filled those cargo planes, surely the very transaction was

contrary to the spirit of Section 15 of the National Conventional Arms Control Act?

Under the act, “the Republic is a responsible member of the international community and will not trade in conventional arms with states engaged in repression, aggression or terrorism”. The NCACC, which oversees our arms sales, is obliged under law to forbid the sale of any arms which could aggravate regional military conflicts, or be used for repression or to commit human rights abuses.

The Turkish government is quick to say that the military hardware will be used in military exercises and is destined for the Machinery and

Chemical Industry Institute, but that body is known to process explosives and ammunition for the Turkish Ministry of Defence.

It is widely believed that the military hardware sold by RDM to Turkey included substantial munitions. DefenceWeb reported on April 7 that RDM had announced on April 7 that it had signed a contract in March to supply artillery charges to the value of more than R1440 billion, although the company refused to disclose the customer or volumes.

If one has a cursory knowledge of the nature of Turkey’s military intervention in Libya, it becomes obvious that it has become a major player in the armed conflict over the past five months. Turkey has created an air link between Istanbul and Tripoli’s Mitiga and Misrata airports, and has been transferring military weaponry and supplies on a weekly basis. There has also been a daily transfer of mercenaries from Turkey to Tripoli and Misrata. It is known that for months, Turkey has been amassing mercenaries and military equipment to attack the western coastal city of Tarhuna.

Turkey has sent dozens of Turkish military officers and hundreds of engineers and technicians to Libya in addition to the contingents of mercenaries. It has been reported that Turkey reneged on promises to the mercenaries it recruited and ended up reducing their salaries.

Reports also emerged that the mercenaries had been refusing to obey orders by Turkish officers that may lead to fully-fledged armed clashes and even armed rebellion. An added complication is the fact that Covid-19 has spread throughout the ranks of the mercenaries Turkey sent to Libya, resulting in an escalating death toll.

For armed conflict to be continuing in Libya is devastating in terms of curbing the spread of the virus, which is also why the UN secretary-general has been calling for an urgent ceasefire. While the armed conflict rages, the ability of the Libyan authorities to address the pandemic are increasingly diminished. The top UN official in the country has said that 27 health facilities have been damaged, with 14 forced to close and over 150 000 civilians forced to flee their homes around the capital, Tripoli.

Turkey’s involvement in Syria is no less devastating, and it has intervened militarily in both north-eastern Syria against the Kurds, as well as in north-western Syria, in Idlib, against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey deployed firepower against Syrian targets and sliced through Syria’s front-line forces, shooting down planes and helicopters, destroying artillery and killing a large number of personnel.

As a result of the scorched earth policy in north-western Syria, one million civilians are now caught between three armies. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a de-escalation in Idlib and a ceasefire on March 5th.

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock had briefed the UN Security Council on his mission to Idlib in early March, and he reported on the dire humanitarian situation on the ground. Families are taking turns to sleep outside, and there is a dramatic rise in child marriage, child labour, the recruitment of child soldiers, and gender-based violence.

Turkey’s devastating military intervention in north-eastern Syria began in 2018 when the Turkish army invaded Syria with the intent to wipe out the SDF Kurdish militias and captured Afrin. Then, on October 9 last year, the Turkish army entered north-eastern Syria, targeting hospitals while thousands of Kurdish civilians struggled to leave the conflict areas. The operation was carried out with the intent to eliminate Kurdish groups from north-eastern Syria.

The devastating humanitarian crisis that emerged in the wake of Turkey’s military aggression should have been reason enough for the NCACC to block any military sales from Rheinmetall Denel Munitions to Turkey, but the company has been allowed to sell arms to Turkey for the past two years.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

Share this article: