Why do weapons manufacturers put company logos on their products? You’d think they’d get shy of the bad publicity from their bombs and shells turning up, year in, year out, in TV footage of burnt-out houses and asphyxiated protestors. Or perhaps – whisper it – perhaps it’s actually good publicity. Of a kind.
In any case, remember the media scuffle over US-made tear gas being used against demonstrators in Tahrir Square last year? Since December there’s been a smaller but no less significant controversy in Brazil, after photographs were circulated by Bahraini activists showing tear gas canisters allegedly used against demonstrators, manufactured by Condor Tecnologias Não-Letais, Brazil’s major manufacturer of police weaponry.
Condor denies ever selling tear gas to Bahrain (while conspicuously declining to rule out possible sales to Bahrain’s neighbours, including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council whose six-country ‘Peninsula Shield’ force entered the country last March to back up the crackdown). Condor’s spokesperson, in fact, was quick not only to play down the reports, but to take sides (the customer, after all, is always right):
“Maybe activists are doing this campaign [against gas] to limit the means that police have to use against them. Is all that smoke actually from tear gas?”
The answer, it seems, is yes. All that smoke on the streets of Bahrain is from tear gas – being fired indiscriminately, in industrial quantities, day-in and day-out against men, women and children alike. Activists have reported that at least thirty Bahraini protestors have been killed by “non-lethal” tear gas since protests started last February – sixteen since the start of this year. These include elderly women sitting in their homes, like Salma Mohsin Abbas, an 81-year-old who reportedly died after a security officer gassed her house in the village of Barbar on 13 January 2012 in the aftermath of an earlier protest. And several children, like 15-year-old Sayyed Hashem Saeed, killed after being hit at close range by a tear gas canister during a protest at Sitra on 31 December 2011; and Sajida Awad, a five-day-old baby who died in Bilad-Kadim village in September, according to Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, after security forces gassed a series of villages on the capital’s outskirts where they believed protestors were based.
While the febrile international media has moved on to Syria and elsewhere – and as Formula 1 motor-racing prepares to gloss over the carnage to roll out the red carpet at the Bahrain Grand Prix on 22 April – the crackdown against Bahrain’s democracy movement continues. On-going demonstrations continue to be attacked and gassed, and the government has notoriously targeted doctors for treating the injured: at least twenty doctors were sentenced to between five and fifteen years in prison for felonies reported by ‘secret sources’ after they were arrested while treating injured demonstrators last year (they’re currently on re-trial). Bahrain’s leading human rights defender, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, imprisoned for life after being arrested in a demonstration in April 2011, may well die this week as his hunger strike passes its 60th day. [Please, please sign the petition here for his release]
In practice, of course Condor will know exactly to which countries the batches of tear gas shown in the activists’ photos were sold. They’re just not saying.
We can potentially get some clues, however, from Brazil’s admirably thorough trade statistics, uploaded monthly by its trade secretariat SECEX into an online database publicly accessible here.
The Condor grenades photographed by Bahraini protestors appear to be from at least two batches, marked with manufacture dates of November 2009 and May 2011. So the second batch, at least, can’t have been shipped before the start of May 2011.
Since then Brazil has reported exports under the ’93’ customs code grouping (covering “arms and ammunition”) to three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait. Only one received goods classified under a code likely to cover weapon-fired tear gas grenades (93062100, covering cartridges for smooth-barrel shotguns/carbines): Qatar, to which over 80 tonnes of goods in this category – worth nearly US$2.5m – were shipped by sea from Santos, Sao Paolo, during June 2011.
We can’t tell 100% from the trade stats alone that these were definitely Condor tear gas grenades. Nor can we rule out the possibility that Brazilian weaponry found in Bahrain had beenshipped somewhere else but mis-classified in the statistics; or shipped direct to Bahrain but simply not reported. Nor from the stats alone can we know who was the recipient of the goods within Qatar – whether a private gun shop or the Qatari security forces.
But in the absence of other evidence, the available trade data does suggest Qatar as the most likely conduit so far for the Brazilian tear gas found in Bahrain. If so, it was shipped just a month after its manufacture, perhaps a “just-in-time” delivery for Qatari forces facing unexpected operational demands. At the very least, the trade data confirms that Brazil shipped over 80 tons of arms to Qatar last year, well after Qatari forces had arrived in Bahrain, and well after it was already apparent that their operations were supporting security forces which, in full view of the world’s media, were beating, arresting and torturing protestors.
Incidentally, by June 2011 it was also clear that Qatar was diverting weapons fairly openly to Libyan rebel forces in potential violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya, making Qatar a risky destination for any weapons exports.
It’s hard to say that any of this wasn’t known to exporting companies or governments – they just had to turn on the TV.
With the death-toll in Bahrain still mounting, the Brazilian government needs now to suspend weapons exports to the Gulf Cooperation Council members with security forces there. It also needs to explain to Brazilian activists and parliamentarians what weapons have been shipped to Qatar recently. Meanwhile, until Condor reveals definitively who they’ve shipped tear gas to since May 2011; and until they can prove that they had firm knowledge that its recipients, whoever they were, weren’t engaged in serious violations of international law; then they too have questions to answer. The sooner the glib PR stops and the answers start, the better.
|Destination||Month||Customs Code||Value (US$ FOB)||Weight (kg)||Quantity||Port/transport|
|Qatar||June 2011||93062100 – cartridges for smooth-barrel shotguns/carbines||2 487 470||80 343||N/A||Santos, Sao Paolo, by sea|
|UAE||June 2011||93033000 – Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns||51 154||161||50||Sao Paolo airport, by air|
|UAE||March 2012||93033000 – Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns||300||6||2||Sao Paolo airport, by air|
|Kuwait||July 2011||93033000 – Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns||10 690||58||35||Sao Paolo airport, by air|
|Kuwait||Nov 2011||93033000 – Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns||9 645||36||30||Sao Paolo airport, by air|
|Kuwait||March 2012||93033000 – Other sporting/hunting/target-shooting shotguns||8 500||49||30||Sao Paolo airport, by air|
Source: My compilation from Aliceweb2 trade statistics
 While they’re admirably public and thorough, we also know that Brazil’s customs reporting of its weapons exports has sometimes lacked, er, candidness. The Brazilian government declines to report the large quantities of handguns they export each year on “national security” grounds, and other weapons exports are notoriously hidden by mis-classifications. Brazilian-made medium-range missiles sold to Malaysia in 2001, for example, were apparently reported under the customs code for ‘other long guns’, usually used for hunting rifles: fifty-one giant hunting rifles, each costing US$ 486,999 and weighing 6613kg, according to the trade stats…
Graphic: Ahmad Nady/Flickr (Creative Commons)
Title Image: Tear gas in Manama, Bahrain, 13 February 2011, Al Jazeera English/Flickr (Creative Commons)