Australia defies UN pleas over atrocities in Yemen, escalates weapons exports to Saudis

by Michelle Fahy | May 17, 2021 | Business

Documents released under Freedom of Information reveal Australia approved 103 military export permits to UAE and Saudi during the Yemen war – and denied just three permit applications. Michelle Fahy investigates Australia’s escalating export trade in weapons with the Saudi dictatorship, in defiance of its international commitments.

The Defence Department allowed local weapons-making companies to export to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two countries behind the disastrous Yemen war, even as the UN was pleading for the rest of the world to stop supplying weapons to these countries.

In the nearly six years from 1 July 2015 to 31 March 2021, the Defence Department approved 103 permits for munitions exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In the same period, the Department denied just three permit applications to Saudi Arabia and none for the UAE.

The figures were released last week following a Freedom of Information request. The permits cover permanent military exports of munitions. The munitions list includes military specific goods and technology such as weaponry, ammunition, missiles, armoured vehicles, military vessels, as well as military-specific items such as helmets and body armour.

Near total secrecy

Near blanket secrecy surrounds exactly what the Defence Department is approving for export to these two authoritarian countries. Australia has long used ‘commercial in confidence’ and ‘national security’ reasons to justify its secrecy, which is in stark contrast to the increased transparency envisaged by the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Australia worked hard at the UN to bring the ATT into being, and ratified the treaty in 2014.

However, specific information about one company’s exports came to light in late 2018 and 2019 when Canberra-based weapons manufacturer Electro Optic Systems (known as EOS) was revealed to be supplying its remote weapons systems to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

EOS had announced a significant export contract of $410 million the day after the Turnbull government launched its new exports policy in January 2018. EOS acknowledged the government for its help in landing the deal. At the time, EOS kept secret who the deal was with, claiming that disclosing that information would not be in the national interest. Ironically, the UAE later outed itself as an EOS customer with no apparent concern it was damaging Australia’s national interest.

Since 2016, the UN has been pleading for all nations to stop supplying weaponry to the countries involved in the Yemen war, which is currently the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. That same year the UN said, “Since the beginning of this conflict in Yemen, weddings, marketplaces, hospitals, schools – and now mourners at a funeral – have been hit, resulting in massive civilian casualties and zero accountability for those responsible.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have led the coalition of Arab countries fighting the Houthis in Yemen. The UN and human rights groups have documented widespread atrocities against civilians as well as the targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Middle East a priority market

Despite such atrocities, the Australian government earmarked the Middle East as a “priority market” in its 2018 export strategy, publicly pursuing sales with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It is unknown how large a market the Middle East has become for Australian military exports because the government does not publish figures specific to that region.

The Defence Department publishes poorly defined aggregate figures which show that the total value of defence export approvals has increased from about $1.5 billion to about $5 billion since the government’s export push began. Defence figures are for export approvals, not actual exports.

Christopher Pyne was defence industry minister when the exports strategy was launched. He said that Australia wanted to support military exports to countries “like ourself who support the rules-based international order”.

Explaining Australia’s new military export strategy on Nine Television, trade minister Steve Ciobo said the policy wasn’t “about providing weapons or arms to rogue regimes. We’ve got strict controls, and those controls make sure we only supply defence assets in the future to like-minded countries that have a strong human rights record and have protections in place.” That statement was patently false when it was made.

Note Ciobo’s language. The words ‘weapons’ and ‘arms’ when referring to ‘rogue regimes’ became ‘defence assets’ when talking about ‘like-minded’ countries.

Strict export controls?

As for Australia’s “strict” export controls, said by Defence to take full account of Australia’s international obligations, such controls have not stopped the approval of a single arms export permit to the UAE for the duration of the Yemen war, and have only denied three permits to Saudi Arabia. There have been 80 permits approved for the UAE and 23 for Saudi Arabia.

On top of the repeated breaches of international law by these two countries in Yemen, the UAE’s actions in Libya further repudiate false claims that Australia will only authorise military exports to countries that respect international law.

The UN says the current arms embargo on Libya remains “totally ineffective” following repeated breaches over many years by a number of countries, including the UAE. The UAE is illegally arming and supporting rebel Libyan forces trying to overthrow the internationally recognised government.

Responses by the Defence Department in Senate hearings have not ruled out the possibility that Australian weaponry could be used in Yemen. Take this example from Senate estimates hearings in 2017, an answer provided by Defence on multiple occasions.

Senator Gallacher: The question is whether the equipment has ended up being used in [Yemen]. Do you know?

Defence’s written response: It is important to note that military equipment might be used in conflicts so, to meet Australia’s international obligations, Defence assesses the risks as to whether it is likely to be used unlawfully in that conflict. [Emphasis added]

In 2020, the latest UN update said ongoing serious human right violations by parties to the conflict underlined a “complete lack of respect for international law and human life”. For civilians in Yemen, “there is simply no safe place to escape the ravages of the war”.

Permanent export permits issued by Defence Export Control

  2015-16 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21*  
Saudi Arabia 7 2 5 3 4 2 23
UAE 23 18 13 5 10 11 80
Total 30 20 18 8 14 13 103

* to 31 March 2021. Figures for military goods/technology excluding dual use goods/technology

Permanent export applications denied by Defence Export Control

  2015-16 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21*  
Saudi Arabia 0 0 0 0 2 1 3
UAE 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Total 0 0 0 0 2 1 3

* to 31 March 2021. Figures for military goods/technology denials. No applications were denied for dual use goods/technology exports.

Michelle Fahy is an independent journalist who has been investigating militarism and the arms trade since 2009.

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