TEL AVIV, Israel — After prodding from experts and human rights activists, Israel's Ministry of Defense has removed Burundi from its list of 98 nations where Israeli exporters do not need permission to market non-classified weaponry and defense services.
Due to "significant suspicions of violations of human rights" in the central African country, the Ministry's API Defense Exports Controls Agency informed exporters last month they now need to apply for marketing licenses, which will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
"Due to the deterioration of the internal security situation in Burundi, there is significant suspicion of harm to human rights in that country. Therefore, do not conduct marketing activities in this country of products and systems with the potential to harm human rights."
The Jan. 20 notification was communicated to exporters through a password-protected website and was not made available to the press.
It followed a Dec. 13 letter by Eitay Mack, an attorney representing local human rights activists, who urged MoD to halt arms sales to Burundi and to ensure that exports are not re-transferred from neighboring countries such as Rwanda, Congo and Uganda to groups that could end up on both sides of ongoing internecine Hutu clashes and potential future battles between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups.
But the change in export policy, driven by months of bloody clashes between government forces and opposition groups, is too little and may be too late before current violence spirals into renewed civil war or even genocide, Mack told Defense News on Tuesday.
"They're not banning exports … and then there's the issue of licenses that have already been granted," said Mack. "Let's say someone here has a license to deliver 3,000 light arms and he has shipped only 2,000 thus far. Will they freeze the license? Cancel it? There are a lot of ways to play games."
Mack noted that Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza has threatened to repel attempts by the African Union to put peacekeepers on the ground. "What will happen if Israeli weapons are used against peacekeepers? This is a risky game and it's best to be prepared ahead of time and not wait for the UN to impose an embargo.
"Remember, the embargo in Rwanda took effect on May 17, 1994, a month and a half after the genocide began;. The same thing can happen with Burundi."
"As is known, the State of Israel is one of the better friends of Rwanda, where Israeli defense exports have been prominent in recent years due to a cooling of European and American ties with the administration [of Rwandan President Paul Kagame]," Mack wrote.
To underscore his point, Mack cited Israel's acknowledgment to the UN Arms Registry of a 2008 sale of 160-millimeter rocket launchers to Rwanda. He also noted that a prominent local businessman with close ties to the defense establishment has been Kigali's honorary consul in Israel for many years.
"To much sorrow, as is known, there have been not a few instances in the past where Israeli defense exports came into the hands of both sides of opponents," Mack wrote.
An MoD spokeswoman declined to provide information regarding export policy.
A former defense export official characterized Israel's trade to Burundi and neighboring countries as "insignificant" relative to the billions in annual Israeli defense exports.
"We're talking just tens of millions of shekels, if that, in any given year," the retired official said.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.