Germany’s ‘deadliest company’ pledges to stop selling guns to crisis reg...
Arms Trade - German business - Germany - The Guardian

Germany’s ‘deadliest company’ pledges to stop selling guns to crisis regions

Heckler & Koch, whose weapons have killed 2 million people, vows to end sales to warzones and countries falling short of corruption and democracy standards.

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Heckler & Koch, the German weapons manufacturer whose guns are estimated to have killed more than 2 million people since the company was founded in 1949, has quietly adopted the most ethical sales policy of any gunmaker in the world.

The company has pledged no longer to sell arms into warzones or to countries that violate corruption and democracy standards, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, or any African countries.

Though never officially announced, the new strategy was included in Heckler & Koch’s latest yearly financial report, and confirmed at an annual general meeting in August. A spokesman said that the firm had “withdrawn from the crisis regions of this world”.

Heckler & Koch – sometimes called Germany’s deadliest company by activists – said it would now sell only to “green countries,” which it defined according to three criteria: membership of Nato or “Nato-equivalent” (Japan, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand); Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index; and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index.

Company directors have also promised to consider setting up a compensation fund for victims of its guns, although it remains unclear how such a fund would work. German veteran anti-arms-trade campaigner Jürgen Grässlin pointed out that such an initiative would be “unique anywhere in the world”.

The new plan represents a startling change of heart for a company that, in 2010, was caught illegally selling its high-powered G36 assault rifles to Mexico. Over the past 65 years, Heckler & Koch guns have been licensed to – among others – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Myanmar, from where they have made their way into conflicts in virtually every part of the world.

There are an estimated 15 million of the firm’s G3 rifles in circulation alone, and Grässlin has estimated that one person gets killed by a Heckler & Koch bullet every 13 minutes.

Having been buried in the annual report published in March, the policy was not confirmed until what activists called an “absurd” AGM in the small town of Sulz am Neckar in southern Germany on 15 August.

In a small hotel from which the press was barred for the day, “critical shareholders” (anti-weapons campaigners who had bought single shares) posed a total of 110 questions to the assembled company directors, led by supervisory board chairman Dieter John.

Among the shareholders was Grässlin, in his capacity as spokesman for the campaign Aktion Aufschrei – Stoppt den Waffenhandel! (Action Outcry – Stop the Arms Trade), who was surprised by the reception they received. “I thought we’d get lynched in there,” he said. “You have to remember we’ve been fighting hard against this firm for 30 years. We’ve blocked the plant several times, we’ve had the toughest legal rows.”

Previous contact with the company had been limited to threats from its legal department, yet Grässlin and his fellow activists were offered “a friendly greeting, and none of the arrogance you normally encounter at such AGMs”.

Grässlin was careful to point out that the new strategy was not a complete apostasy, since Heckler & Koch intends to honour contracts already signed. Moreover, the planned change will have no effect on the US, one of the firm’s biggest markets. “There’s no telling what wars the US army under Donald Trump might yet be led into,” Grässlin cautioned.

Grässlin also claimed that he and his fellow activists had played a part in forcing the new strategy, not least by filing criminal charges against the company.

But the German government had another explanation. Lars Castellucci, a spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, said the more restrictive policies urged by the economic affairs ministry – run by successive SPD ministers – had forced arms companies to rethink. “The SPD has tried to tread on the brakes and limit arms exports, especially in regions that aren’t considered safe,” said Castellucci. The success of this approach has been questionable, however, with total German arms exports reaching record highs in 2015 and 2016.

“A company like that makes decisions based on economic questions, and the restrictive policies of SPD ministers has led to certain profit margins dwindling, because they could no longer be sure that the contracts would really happen,” Castellucci added.

Grässlin agreed that the decision was “not just ethical”, but said he was largely indifferent about how it had happened. “This is a company that had one of the most terrible reputations – in all the podium discussions I’ve done in the last few years, the other arms companies used to say, ‘We’re not like Heckler & Koch, we’re morally better.’ Now Heckler & Koch has come along and said, ‘We’re not delivering to the Middle East anymore’. It’ll be interesting to see what happens now.”