Defence minister to “think very carefully” about future conflict export orders

A lighter-armed Patria AMV deployed in Yemen, 12th August 2018 / Credit: Sky News Arabia

Finland’s Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö (Blue) says he will have to “think very carefully” about any future export orders for military equipment destined for Middle East conflict zones.

He made the comments to state broadcaster YLE on their Tuesday evening news, after an investigation by News Now Finland uncovered the first evidence of Finnish-made Patria vehicles deployed to parts of Yemen where the United Nations says scores of civilians have been killed.

Finland exported Patria AMVs to the United Arab Emirates in 2008 and 2015, and these orders have a been a case of ‘plausible deniability’ for the Finnish government, which says the export sales were approved before anyone knew the extent of fighting in Yemen.

However, this year Finnish ministries twice approved the export of spare parts to the Emirati military to keep the Patrias on the road – in January and July – despite warnings from the UN and aid agencies that tens of millions of people in Yemen are in dire need of help as the humanitarian crisis unfolds; and that civilians were routinely being killed in battles between a Saudi Arabia-Emirates Coalition, and rebel Houthi fighters.

A still image of Defence minister Jussi Niinistö during a phone interview with state broadcaster YLE on Tuesday 18th September 2018 / Credit: YLE Uutiset

Speaking in a phone interview, Niinistö told YLE that he couldn’t say for sure when the Patria vehicles seen in news crew footage were exported to UAE’s military.

“We can’t say, based on the estimates that have been in public, that which of these batches, the one that was exported ten years ago or the newer batch, if they have been used in the Yemen crisis. But on the other hand, we can’t confirm that they haven’t been used either” said Niinistö.

“Based on this information off course we need to think very carefully if there are orders to that part of the world, I don’t have information that there would be anything special in the near future, so off course we have to use a very strict or precise case-by-case evaluation of those” he explained.

First confirmed evidence of Patrias in Yemen

The video of Patria vehicles as part of a larger convoy of military hardware, was filmed by Sky News Arabia and, separately, by Emirates News Agency on 12th August 2018 heading towards the port city of Hudaydah in western Yemen.

One of the AMVs was equipped with a light remote control machine gun, made by a local Abu Dhabi company called IGG. However the other Patria was fitted with a Russian weapons turret, originally designed for a BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle used by the Russian military.

Patria says they export the vehicles without weapons, and it’s up to the receiving customer how they upgrade and deploy them.

“Each country and its Armed Forces will decide how they use the provided materiel or equipment in their military operations. For any company it is not possible to restrict that by agreements” says Patria’s Birgitta Selonen.

Situated on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, Hudaydah plays a critical role in bringing in supplies of food for the estimated 22 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance.

Hudaydah has been in the hands of Houthi rebel fighters since the end of 2014, and gaining control of the city is a key priority for Yemen government forces and the Saudi-led coalition propping them up.

In June, Coalition forces launched a new effort to take back the city but stopped short of a full blown ground invasion. Airstrikes damaged water plants and hospitals, and sporadic outbreaks of cholera stalked the residents who hadn’t already fled. The UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Lisa Grande said in July that Hudaydah was just “one airstrike away from an unstoppable epidemic”.

After a brief ceasefire in July, Saudi and Emirati forces pushed ahead with another offensive just a few weeks later.

Official reaction and media reaction

Since our investigation was published in the early hours of Monday morning, the story has gained a lot of attention from Finnish media and politicians alike, and prompted a public debate about the role Finland plays in exporting military hardware, know-how and spare parts to conflict regions.

Finland has also spent at least €5m on humanitarian aid to Yemen in the last 18 months, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That same ministry is part of the export approval process, and both the Ministry of Defence and state-owned Patria say they rely on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give them geopolitical guidance before exports are approved.

“Before granting a licence Ministry of Defence shall establish with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that there is no foreign and security policy obstacles to granting a licence. In this
particular case, Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed that there is no foreign and security policy obstacle” to exporting spare parts for Patria vehicles in July, the Ministry of Defence tells News Now Finland in a statement.

Versions of our reporting were picked up by all the main Finnish media outlets including state broadcaster YLE which covered it online and on television in Finnish and Swedish; MTV Uutiset; the country’s largest daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat; STT Finnish news agency; Ilta Sanomat tabloid newspaper, and numerous smaller newspapers all across the country.

Politicians like Left Alliance leader Li Andersson, former Green Alliance presidential candidate Paavo Arhinmäki and several other Green MPs also shared our investigation on social media, and called on the government to stop military exports to the region.