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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Andrew Farran is former diplomat, trade adviser to government and senior academic (public law including international law).

Writes extensively on international affairs and defence, contributing previously to major newspapers (metropolitan and rural). Formerly director of major professional publishing company; now of a major wool growing enterprise.

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