Selling arms with impunity

Jan 30, 2020

Australia’s military industry exports are increasing rapidly fuelled by $195bn in federal funding to 2025-26 and strong collaboration between federal, state, and local governments and agencies. Team Defence Australia showcases Aussie weapons-making ingenuity at arms expos world-wide, all year round. Where is all this cash and activity leading us? And do we want to go there?

“The way much of the arms trade currently works continues to be a blot on the global moral landscape.”

That was Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking ahead of the world’s largest weapons expo, Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), last September in London.

A few months earlier, in a win for the campaign against ongoing arms sales to the countries bombing Yemen, a British court ruled that the UK’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia were unlawful. The government has appealed.

As in previous years there was widespread public protest against DSEI. This time the London mayor even wrote to event organisers saying he strongly opposed the event and wanted it out of London. Public outrage intensified as the UK government’s list of invitees was published. The list included Saudi Arabia and other countries involved human rights abuses around the world.

In response, a UK government spokesperson said that all invited foreign governments were required to pass a “stringent process of scrutiny and approval” which included an examination of their respect for human rights. This was a risible claim, not least because DSEI’s ‘international partner’ was the United Arab Emirates, the country partnering Saudi Arabia in creating the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

Soon after DSEI ended the Financial Times said in an editorial, “The ethics of arms exports is no longer the preserve of lobby groups. There is a broader public groundswell of opposition. Governments can no longer expect to sell arms with impunity using economic interest as a justification.”

The Australian government has paid no heed. Nor has our military industry. In response to a barrage of criticism for its exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE while the atrocities in Yemen continued, Australian firm Electro Optic Systems (EOS) attempted to justify its exports, in part citing economic reasons, “Foreign sales significantly reduce the cost of development, acquisition and support for Australia for defence technology. This is the principal reason why Australian industry participates in international sales.”

Despite official claims by the Defence Department as to the rigorous approval process for Australian military exports, in recent weeks we have learned from a Guardian Australia FOI request that 86 weapons export permits were granted in the 2018-19 year alone to four known human rights abusing nations: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Sri Lanka and the Congo. Permit details were uniformly redacted so we don’t know what was sold or to whom in those countries. The Australian public is expected to accept the government’s assertion that the approvals process honestly addresses international obligations. However, the Guardian soon published a follow-up stating that the four exports to the Congo had occurred in defiance of a UN requirement that all proposed exports there be advised in advance. Can we trust the government when it says our arms export process is rigorous and meets all international obligations? It would appear not.

Leaving aside the absence of ethics and transparency, the government’s focus on increasing weapons exports appears to have succeeded thus far, with the level of exports rising from around $1.1 billion in 2016-17 to around $5 billion in 2018-19.

One factor supporting Australia’s rising exports is Team Defence Australia, which organises the Australian presence at weapons expos around the world, including the biennial DSEI. TDA events are organised in conjunction with the Centre for Defence Industry Capability and Austrade, coordinated with state and territory governments, and supported by Australia’s largest weapons corporations.

For Australian military supply firms that make the cut, all expenses – other than flights and accommodation – are covered by the Australian taxpayer. Additional assistance with presentation skills, marketing skills, and networking contacts is provided by Austrade and others. There is also access to additional funding via grants from state and territory governments.

In September 2019 Team Defence Australia, led by chef de mission, former navy chief, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, took a record sixty-two Australian companies to London for the DSEI, the largest Australian delegation ever taken overseas. (The delegation to DSEI 2017 was forty-two companies.) The day before DSEI started Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price was in London to address the delegation and other guests at Australia House for an Innovation and Industry Day, complete with official reception. Also in attendance was Australia’s Defence Export Advocate David Johnston, the acting high commissioner, senior staff from Austrade, the Defence Department and the UK Ministry of Defence, as well as industry representatives. The cost to the taxpayer of this international undertaking has not been made public to my knowledge. What deals were done and with whom? We’ll likely never know. DSEI might be the largest event TDA attends, but it is certainly not the only one. In 2020, TDA has a roster of sixteen international weapons expositions scheduled.

Defence and national security are a federal responsibility, but that hasn’t stopped a headlong rush by every state and territory government in Australia to create their own defence advisory boards, with accompanying appointments of high profile ‘defence industry advocates’, in a naked grab for a cut of the $195 billion the federal government has on offer to enhance Australia’s ‘defence capability’ over the decade to 2025-26. For better or worse Australia now has a rapidly expanding library of state and territory-based military industry strategy documents and reports. Along with those has come a blossoming array of committees, boards, seminars and partnerships covering a multitude of military hardware, technology, research, and personnel requirements.

This nationwide dramatic increase in interest in the military industry hasn’t stopped at state level. Some local governments are getting in on the act. In 2018 Ipswich Council co-hosted, with the Queensland Government, the inaugural Queensland Defence Summit, sponsored by major weapons-makers. The council has established the City of Ipswich Defence Industry Advisory Committee which has produced the Defence Ipswich Action Plan 2018-2023. In NSW, the Hunter Valley region has the Hunter Defence project. These are unlikely to be the only regional examples.

The speed with which all this appeared has been remarkable. The questions now are, to what end, and to whose benefit, are these vast sums being expended? And do we want to go where this policy is leading us?

Michelle Fahy is a researcher of the Australian arms trade.

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