'Code of silence' in poor Sardinia amid uproar over Saudi arm sales


by Alvise Armellini

Despite the efforts of pope-endorsed pacifists, workers in one of Italy's poorest areas embrace the jobs being brought in by a German-owned arms maker linked to Yemen's "forgotten war."

The Carbonia-Iglesias province, in south-western Sardinia, is far from the island's stereotypical image as a glamorous Mediterranean holiday destination favoured by Hollywood actors, supermodels and footballers.
It is a former coal mining and aluminium production centre where nearly all factories and mines have closed in the last two decades. In 2015, its per capita gross domestic product of 13,500 euros (15,500 dollars) was the third-lowest among Italy's 110 provinces.
In a place where the youth unemployment rate hovers around 60 per cent, RWM Italia, a subsidiary of Germany's Rheinmetall Defence, is a welcome source of work, and operates one of the area's last surviving industrial sites in the town of Domusnovas.
"Nobody here in likes war or weapons, but the RWM factory is something we will defend to the last man," the mayor of the 6,000-strong municipality, Massimiliano Ventura, told dpa. "It provides livelihood for the entire province."
The plant produces anti-landmine systems, warheads and electronic fusing systems, Rheinmetall's website says. A company spokesman told dpa he could not give any more details, due to the confidentiality of the business and contractual obligations.
RWM lists Saudi Arabia as one of its customers in its annual report.
Saudi Arabia is the leader of a coalition backing the government in Yemen's civil war, which is nearing the end of its third year in one of the Arab world's poorest countries. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say the Italian-made arms are being used for airstrikes that have killed civilians there.
The latest report came two weeks ago from Yemeni NGO Mwatana. It sent Italian news agency ANSA pictures of fragments of explosives bearing RWM Italia production codes, and said they came from an October 8 raid on the Houthi district of Bajil, in which six people died, including four children. The Shiite Houthi rebels are backed by Saudi Arabia's regional rival Iran.
"We have a reasonable estimate that in 2016 Italy exported about 20,000 bombs or bomb parts [to Saudi Arabia] worth several hundreds of millions of euros," Maurizio Simoncelli of the Italian Network for Disarmament said in a press conference at the Italian parliament last week.
Simoncelli is part of a coalition of pacifists, environmentalists, Focolare Catholic movement members and ethical finance groups that want to stop Italian arm sales to the Saudis and reconvert the RWM plant to peaceful uses.
Pope Francis - who this month called it "an absurd contradiction to speak of peace, to negotiate peace and at the same time promote or permit the arms trade" - is a big inspiration for many of them.
Campaigners in Iglesias, a town near Domusnovas where 300 people marched against the RWM plant in May, showed dpa a letter from the Vatican in which the pope gave support to their work.
They have another ally in Roberto Cotti, a senator from the opposition Five Star Movement, who was among the first to raise the issue in parliament.
In a parliamentary hearing, he pressed the director of the Italian public agency that authorized the arm shipments to Saudi Arabia.
"I asked him if he had a clear conscience, and he replied, 'I am a Catholic'. After the hearing, I went up to him and told him 'The pope is also a Catholic, but he does not think like you'," Cotti recalled, when he spoke to dpa in Domusnovas.
Campaigners cite European Parliament resolutions against Saudi arm sales; Italy's law on arms exports, which bans supplies to countries at war; and the international Arms Trade Treaty, which forbids arm sales if there is a danger of them being used to commit human rights abuses.
Despite this, RWM Italia's 2016 annual report shows that business is booming, with profits rising threefold from 2015 to 12 million euros (13.7 million dollars), and mentions plans to expand the Domusnovas site, currently employing about 80 people.
According to Amnesty International, more than 4,600 civilians have been killed and 3 million people have been displaced by Yemen's conflict since late 2014.
The Italian government seems to have been aware that its link to the conflict can look bad. It initially suggested RWM's sales to Saudi Arabia had been authorized by Germany. Berlin denied it, and Italy's foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni - who is now premier - later admitted that export licences had been issued by Rome.
He argued that Saudi arm sales were legal as long as the European Union and the United Nations had no embargo in place.
In Domusnovas, locals seemed impenetrable. On a recent visit, it was impossible to speak to any of RWM's employees, even anonymously, and dpa was swiftly turned away from the surroundings of the plant by a security guard.
"There is complete omerta" in defence of the factory, Teresa Piras, one of the Iglesias campaigners, told dpa, using the mafia-derived word for "code of silence." She said anti-RWM activists are routinely sworn at when they visit the town.
A Domusnovas resident, who asked not to be named, hit back at the unwelcome attention being paid to his town.
"Of course it's sad that children are dying over there, but closing the factory here would not solve anything, they would find somewhere else to make these bombs, and we would be left with nothing," he said.