Secrets of the weapons trade

Apr 19, 2024
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jet plane on the tarmac of Kleine-Brogel Airbase.

The Australian government is obscuring weapons exports to Israel despite International Court’s ruling to oppose ‘plausible genocide’.

It is the standard government talking point: “Australia is not sending weapons to Israel and has not done so for the past five years.”

However it’s a line that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Declassified Australia can reveal that the Defence Department has started obscuring munitions-specific export data for Israel that it was previously willing to release. This occurred in its response to the most recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

The latest data obtained by Declassified Australia shows that Australia has issued 383 defence export permits to Israel since 2015, and by extrapolation the overwhelming majority are clearly Munitions List items, not Dual Use equipment.

Data that Defence released in April 2021, following an earlier FOI request I lodged, showed that it approved 230 export permits to Israel between 1 July 2015 and 31 March 2021. Of those, the overwhelming majority – 187 permits (81%) – were for ‘munitions list’ items. Forty-four of those munitions list permits were approved within the past five years.

However, the more recent permit data Defence supplied, covering the period 1 July 2020 to 29 January 2024, does not show the split between munitions list and dual use items, as requested. It shows a combined total of 173 defence exports to Israel approved in that period.

The federal government has been determined in denying any military exports to Israel. Foreign Minister Penny Wong in November clearly said “There’s a lot of misinformation on social media in relation to the provision of weapons.

“I again say what the Deputy Prime Minister has said; Australia has not supplied weapons to Israel since the start of the Hamas Israeli conflict.”

Foreign Minister Penny Wong, 22 November 2023
What the minister leaves out is whether past export permits are still seeing weapons components being exported from Australia to Israel.

Just yesterday, on 9 April, in the space of a couple of minutes on ABC Radio, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy gave various responses to the question by reporter Patricia Karvelas: “Has Australia stopped exporting military equipment to Israel?”

“We are not exporting military equipment to Israel. Whoever is claiming this is wrong. We do not export military equipment at the moment to Israel…

“What I can assure your listeners is that we are not exporting weapons to Israel… End of story… That is a factual statement.”

Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy, 9 April 2024

Focusing on the word ‘weapons’ enables the government to turn a blind eye to the essential parts and components of weapons that Australia is exporting.

In February, in response to questions in the Senate from Senator David Shoebridge, a senior Defence official admitted that the preferred definition of the word ‘weapon’ referred to ‘whole systems, such as armoured vehicles, tanks and combat helicopters’.

The selective word ‘weapons’ also ignores the Defence Department’s own legislated definition, the ‘Munitions List’, which contains 22 categories, containing items ranging from ammunition, bombs and rockets, to radar equipment, chemical agents, robots and so much more.

Such specific and selective use of the word ‘weapons’, when used in the broader context of Australia’s defence exports, is misleading and runs counter to the spirit and intent of the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which Australia itself championed at the UN, and ratified in 2014.

In explanatory notes to the Treaty, the UN says that for each signatory nation:

“The national control lists… cover all items (weapons, ammunition and munitions, parts and components) that are subject to transfer controls under the Arms Trade Treaty.”

Arms Trade Treaty (2014), Module Three, Reporting Requirements

The UN also makes clear that the Treaty does not only cover direct transfer but includes export via centralised distribution centres:

“Any country joining the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) commits to putting in place effective measures to implement the Treaty… The activities of the international arms trade (export, import, transit, trans‐shipment and brokering) are transfers according to Article 2.”

It is plain that the Treaty includes ‘parts and components’ and is not only concerned with fully assembled ‘weapons’. A Dutch court confirmed this in February when it ordered the Dutch government to stop exporting F-35 parts to Israel.

Declassified Australia revealed in November that for the F-35 fighter jet program alone, more than 70 Australian component manufacturers have been awarded “over $4.13 billion in global production and sustainment contracts through the F-35 program to date”.

Defence moves to obscure munitions exports to Israel

In January, I requested information on the annual number of permits granted for defence exports to Israel from 2020-21 to the date of my FOI (29 January 2024). I further requested a monthly breakdown from October 2023 to January 2024.

I made two specific requests:

1. That the data for temporary exports be excluded, leaving only permanent export data in the table

2. That the data on permits approved for munitions list items be shown separately to the data on dual list permits.

Defence ignored both requests even though it had previously supplied the data in that form (as shown in the table below) – but that was before Israel’s war on Gaza. Defence is now restricting the data it releases, likely with the approval of the minister, Richard Marles.

Such behaviour indicates a lack of confidence on the part of the government that its ‘no weapons’ mantra holds water.

My recent FOI establishes that the government has not granted any new defence export approvals to Israel since at least 1 November.

However the Federal government has not made clear whether holders of pre-existing defence export permits have been requested to stop exporting items that may end up in Israel. The Defence Department did not respond to my questions on this issue.

Australia ignores international calls

By 23 February, UN legal experts were calling for arms exports to Israel to cease immediately because ‘any transfer of weapons or ammunition to Israel that would be used in Gaza is likely to violate international humanitarian law’. The experts specifically included weapon parts in this statement.

On 4 April, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that included a demand for an arms embargo on Israel.

Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, Spain and Belgium have already suspended arms sales to Israel. Yet the Australian government remains silent on its position, apart from its misleading mantra that Australia is not exporting ‘weapons’.

The United States continues its supply of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and military aid to Israel. Without the approval of Congress, the Biden administration is using loopholes in US law to continue exporting weapons to Israel.

As a result of FOI requests and questions in parliament, the Defence Department releases the number of defence export permits it has approved to a particular country. This number serves no genuine informative purpose. It is a façade.

Consider: one permit can cover the export of numerous types of weaponry, parts, and ammunition; quantities could be in the dozens, hundreds or thousands; the items could be destined for multiple countries in multiple deliveries; and the permit could grant permission to export the items for years into the future.

Or, one permit might cover one delivery to one country of one item, and expire in a month.

Or, the permit might grant permission to transfer military software or technology digitally, as part of the ongoing development of an autonomous AI-driven weapons system.

All such cases appear as equivalent in Defence’s opaque communication. The Department simply states that three permits have been approved to country X. The public is told nothing about any of them.

An important factor with defence exports is the end user of the equipment.

When considering whether to approve an export the Australian Government must not only consider the suitability of the country receiving the direct transfer, but must also consider the likely end users of that equipment.

For example, if Australia exports F-35 parts to the US, or artillery shells to Germany, and the Government knows these will be shipped onward to Israel, Australia must require safeguards or assurances from the US and Germany that they will not ship those items to Israel.

Export permits still in place

In Australia, companies require permits from Defence to export goods and technologies that appear on the Defence and Strategic Goods List (DSGL). This list is divided into two parts:

1. Munitions (mostly military): includes weapons; bombs and ammunition; armoured vehicles, military vessels, military aircraft (including drones), and their parts and components; software and technologies; and military-specific items such as radios, helmets and body armour. Also explosives, simulators and certain equipment used in civilian industries such as mining/manufacturing.

2. Dual-use (civilian): includes goods and technologies generally for civilian use but which could be adapted for military purposes, or in the production of weapons of mass destruction.

The monthly figures of exports to Israel included in my FOI data confirm rumours that the government has put Israeli defence export permits into a holding pattern since October.

As at 29 January 2024, no new export applications to Israel had been approved in November, December or January. Just three permits were approved in October, dates unspecified..

While Defence manages and administers the defence export permit approval process, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is also involved.

We asked DFAT to explain the specific steps the Department has taken since 7 October 2023 to ensure Australia complies with its obligations under international humanitarian law and the Arms Trade Treaty in regard to Australia’s DSGL munitions list exports that will, or may, end up in Israel.

We wanted to know what DFAT is doing to ensure that exports to Israel for which permits were approved prior to 7 October 2023 have been ceased.

DFAT declined to respond to these specific issues, instead providing this statement:

“Australia has a stringent export control framework, which is designed to ensure our military and dual-use items are used responsibly outside Australia, including in ways that do not violate human rights.

“Part of the assessment of export applications incudes determining if there is any risk the export may be used in ways that violate human rights or Australia’s international obligations. If this risk is identified, the permit is refused.”

The sensitivity of the hidden weapons and components trade to Israel from Australia is clear.

Neither the Defence Department nor the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded to questions on this important issue of public accountability.


Republished by DECLASSIFIED AUSTRALIA April 10, 2024

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