ANDREW FARRAN. Stirring a Witch’s Brew – Selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

Australia is busily involved in selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia which is engaged in the civil war in the Yemen whose features exceed in brutality and crimes against humanity those in Syria. Has the government clearly thought through where this might lead, and does the risk of adverse consequences outweigh a few commercial contracts regardless of where Australia might end up in relation to the wider conflict now well underway in the Middle East?  

There are reports that the forthcoming DFAT White Paper on foreign policy will place more emphasis on ‘values’ as a means of navigating around tricky geo-political diplomatic dilemmas.

It seems that in the lead up to that paper the pass has already been conceded to the merchants of death. We hear now that Australia is busily involved in selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia which is engaged in the civil war in the Yemen whose features exceed in brutality and crimes against humanity those in Syria.

The Yemen civil war began in 2015 between two factions of the then government claiming to be the true government – one, the Houthis, based in the capital Sana; and the other, loyal to deposed President Hadi based in Aden. The Houthis are proxies for Iran, and the Hadi forces proxies for Saudi Arabia. Entangled with both are various terrorist groups including, especially, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The Australian arms sales ‘initiative’ would seem to have followed the visit by Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne to Saudi Arabia last December.

As if the government has not already created enough diplomatic problems for itself by its over-identification with other intractable Middle East conflicts in which we have neither business (apart it seems from arms sales) nor a national interest, it is now siding in a conflict that is emerging as another clash of civilisations and on a scale with similar dimensions potentially as the 16th and 17th century religious wars of Europe. That is, a building showdown between Sunni and Shia forces throughout the Middle East and beyond, the leading proponents of which are the aforementioned Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis and Iran for the Shia’s.

Yemen is the new crucible for this. By selling arms to Saudi Arabia we have sided with the Sunnis, the very group that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 sought to destroy and as a consequence gave birth to ISIS. Meanwhile as if to illustrate the confusion behind this policy we are supporting the current government in Iraq dominated by Shias who with Iran’s assistance are waging a civil war there against the minority Sunnis.

No matter for arms merchants who deal with anyone. But the government should be wary of where this might lead as it is now well documented that Saudi Arabia has been conducting widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets in violation of international humanitarian law, the rules that govern the conduct of war – see the final report of a UN panel of experts submitted to the UN Security Council in January.

Inter alia that panel documented that the Saudi led Coalition “had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes.”

The Panel added that it had “documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law.” According to The Guardian (Britain) the  report then attributed 60% (2,682) of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen to air-launched explosive weapons. More recently the UN has confirmed that the civilian death toll in Yemen is at least 10,000 and that some Coalition attacks “may amount to war crimes”.

Arms sales by the UK to Saudi Arabia have attracted adverse attention in Britain, as they have done for decades going back to Alan Clarke’s famous remark “économie de vérité” when an assistant defence minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, dealing with Middle East arms sales.

In the UK, and the EU, arms sales must not be allowed if there is a “clear risk’ that their use would result in such violations. A judicial review is underway in the UK that aims to halt these sales to Saudi Arabia because of their indiscriminate use. As for Australian authorized arms sales we would not know about their use as the government has declined to release any details citing “commercial-in-confidence” rules. The Foreign Minister is reported as refusing to comment on this either.

Is this a justifiable position for a government to take, to hide behind ‘commercial-in-confidence’ rules to conceal, or the possibility of, war crimes. Is this a foreign policy based on ‘values’?

Has the government clearly thought through where this might lead and does the risk of adverse consequences outweigh such commercial contracts regardless of where Australia might end up in relation to the wider conflict now well underway in the Middle East?

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser and  senior academic in public and international law.  

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5 Responses to ANDREW FARRAN. Stirring a Witch’s Brew – Selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

  1. Dog's Breakfast says:

    This is terrible policy, terrible practice. How can we divorce ourselves from this so blithely?

  2. Bruce Kaye says:

    Absolutely – it beggars belief that the government could make such a decision without any pubic discussion or information. But is this just another example of the shutters that close out the light of public viewing and engagement with significant government policy and actions? Announcements about done deals of deals never to be done might seem like Rob Sitch’s “Utopia” but it is certainly not what we should be able to expect from an elected government in a democracy.

    Serious understanding of the Middle East that this post points to is urgently required in our public debate.
    Thank you.

  3. David Brown says:

    commercial in confidence over rules national and community security…!!!!!!!!!!

    what a bloody bullshit world we live in

    bombing and killing in the Middle East
    initiated and maintained by US, UK, Saudi, Israel and us puppets on a string
    creates and maintains the very few and minor terrorist attacks against us
    and more importantly all the millions of refugees
    that so many politicians and jobs for the boys keep telling us are huge problems

    if we stop supplying arms and bombing and killing with our political mates then we will be able to concentrate on real civilised activities like saving the planet and ensuring we all have clean water, food, education, health, jobs

    to all that read this: please do not vote for politicians that try to make you scared and want to spend your taxes on war, weapons and support big companies that try to keep us all afraid and acting like bigoted hateful unequal slaves

    vote for a clean, positive, equal and just community that will lead the world to a more civilised future

  4. richard le sarcophage says:

    That a Liberal regime, many of whose apparatchiki, past and present, were involved in the illegal aggression (the Supreme Crime under International Law)and genocide against Iraq in 2003, can have the gall to speak of ‘values’ is nauseating, but this is a sickening regime, make no mistake about that. To be allied to the Evil Saud family Mafia regime, no doubt on orders from the Sauds’ long term allies, the USA, and ‘secret’ friends, Israel, is wicked, and self-destructive, particularly if we continue to allow the Sauds to finance ‘schools’ in Australia that brainwash their students into the vile Wahhabist death-cult that drives on the takfiri butchers attacking Iraq and Syria, and provides the shock-troops of Islamist terrorism. It is rather akin, in my opinion, to have allowed Nazis to run schools here during WW2, or Japanese inculcating students into the virtues of ‘Bushido’.

  5. Julian says:

    Many thanks Andrew for your report – unpleasant reading though it be.
    I am with yourself and other posters on this matter: a bloody awful policy and yet another example of “short-termism” (or perhaps adventurism) that may well end up costing us heaps.
    At the risk of being silly, it strikes me that the many “chickens” of short-termism must by now be well on the way to becoming unruly emus. One example only need suffice: consider the widely held belief that privatization is about the best panacea/remedy available for Government debt. Then consider our wonderfully competitive and amazingly cheap energy sector.

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