Truth or Lies? The facts on Australia’s weapons exports to Israel … and the risk

by Monika Sarder | Feb 28, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

Rising calls for the Australian Government to confess to supplying weapons to Israel, which is on trial for genocide at The Hague, have been batted away. Are government MPs lying, or merely being economical with the truth? Monika Sarder reports.

For over three months, members of the Labor Government, including Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong, have held the line that “Australia is not sending weapons to Israel and has not done so for the past five years”. This claim by Labor MPs has also been proliferating through a social media campaign allegedly combatting ‘disinformation’.

The reality is that Australia is a major exporter of military goods to Israel, and our government may be at risk of being prosecuted for complicity in war crimes due to our export of F-35 bomber parts and other weapons being used in attacks on Gaza.

Anne Aly

Government Instagram post reposted by a number of MPs

Despite the government’s attempts to cover up Australia’s weapons exports to Israel, minor parties and human rights groups have used what little accountability measures are available to challenge this claim.

Figures available from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade show that, in the six financial years from 2017-18, Australia has supplied $14.5 million dollars in arms and munitions to Israel.

Earlier this year, following questioning from Greens Senator David Shoebridge, it was revealed that over the same period, Australia approved 322 military goods export licences to Israel.

Said Shoebridge: “[Foreign Minister] Penny Wong’s own department says in their published data that we have sent more than $10 million in arms and ammunition to Israel in the last five years.

“Then, when we ask her in the Senate why she will not stop Australia’s arms exports to Israel, she stares you in the face and says that Australia has not sent any arms or ammunition to Israel in the last five years.”

Wong’s response has been to duck the question: “I know there’s a lot of disinformation and misinformation circulating … I would encourage the senator [Shoebridge] to make sure that he does not contribute to that”.

Tricky accounting the excuse

So why is the government insisting that Australia’s weapons trade with Israel doesn’t exist? Put simply, it is a case of tricky accounting. Checkmate ABC has established that this claim is drawn from a narrow definition of weapons counts used by the UN Register of Conventional Arms (ROCA). ROCA’s aim is to provide a record of transfers of completed builds of weapons between countries.

These numbers do not include weapon parts, as this would result in double counting, and ROCA is only interested in the total weapons traded. Whilst excluding part counts is appropriate for ROCA’s purposes, such an exclusion is grossly inappropriate for the purpose of reporting on Australia’s weapons trade.

The arms trade consists of an extensive global supply chain of parts, services, and maintenance contracts. Australia’s own Defence and Strategic Goods List explicitly states that ‘parts and accessories’ are military goods for the purpose of export controls. Critically, the Arms Trade Treaty, which is aimed at preventing the transfer of arms for use in war crimes, restricts the export of ‘parts and components.’

 

The legal culpability of weapons parts exporters was clarified earlier this month when a Dutch appeals court ordered the government of the Netherlands to stop the export of F-35 bomber parts to Israel, citing a clear risk that it was being used to commit war crimes in Gaza.

In bringing their case before the Dutch court, Oxfam Netherlands and two other human rights organisations argued that the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development was obliged to reassess F-35 export licences once the overriding risk that the bomber was being used to commit and facilitate war crimes in Gaza became apparent.

The court accepted this argument, finding that the F-35 bombers had been used in ‘indiscriminate attacks’ on civilians and that there was a clear risk that these attacks amounted to breaches of international humanitarian law. In making these findings, the court relied on evidence from the United Nations and Amnesty International showing that almost half of the bombs dropped by Israel on Gaza are ‘dumb bombs’ (i.e. unguided bombs that are generally not precise) and that targets had included hospitals, schools, refugee camps, homes, markets and religious buildings.

The court subsequently ordered the Netherlands government to stop all exports of F-35 parts within seven days.

Australia’s genocide risk

The Dutch ruling has implications for the legality of Australia’s export of weapons parts to Israel, in particular, our export of F-35 parts. Australia has signed and ratified the Arms Trade Treaty and has recognised the international obligations arising from the treaty in domestic law.

The treaty aims to reduce human suffering by limiting the availability of weapons for use in serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law (aka ‘war crimes’). To achieve this, member states are required to refuse licences for the export of military goods where there is an overriding risk that the weapons will be used in such breaches. This requirement applies to both new and existing permits, meaning permits must be reassessed if the member state becomes aware that the goods are being used to commit war crimes.

Australia’s current export licences of weapons parts to Israel are almost certainly in breach of our domestic and international legal obligations. At present, over 70 Australian companies supply parts and maintenance to F-35 bombers. It is a matter of public record that every F-35 contains some Australian parts. Israel is already in possession of 50 F-35 craft and has placed an order for 25 more. 

Over 70 Australian companies provide parts and maintenance to the F-35 program.

The government’s persistent gaslighting of the Australian public in relation to our weapons exports to Israel is reprehensible. It is time for transparency and accountability, the foundations of responsible government, to prevail.

There is currently a legal action underway, brought by the Australian Centre for International Justice and other human rights groups, to try and access information about Australian defence export permits to Israel since October 7. It should not take a court action for the Government to release this information. In the UK for example, information pertaining to requests for export permits – which includes the name of the company, the nature of the export, and the dollar amount – is readily available. 

Australians have the right to know whether their government is supplying weapons used to commit war crimes arms. Should the government continue supplying arms to Israel, they have a right to have these demands adjudicated in a court of law. The secrecy and mendacity must end.

F-35 Australian suppliers

Editor’s Note: The government has not come clean on the role of Pine Gap surveillance facilities in the war on Gaza and the Future Fund had not changed its position on its investment in the largest Israeli bomb-market Elbit Systems, even the the wake of the genocide action against Israel in the International Court of Justice.

Future Fund profits from bombing of Gaza thanks to Elbit investment

Monika Sarder has worked across policy and data science professions. She spent several years working as a policy analyst for industry groups. completed a Masters of Applied Econometrics at Monash University and was subsequently offered the opportunity to work for the Monash Econometrics & Business Statistics (EBS) Consulting Service. She currently works in a professional research team at Monash University harnessing currently available data resources for the purposes of answering strategic higher education questions.

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