Why does Australia still sell weapons to human-rights abuser Saudi Arabia?

Dec 7, 2021
A teddy bear is left on the stairs of a damaged house after Saudi-led airstrikes on the Houthi-controlled Yemen capital Sana'a. (Image: EPA/Yahya Arhab)

As the kingdom wages war in Yemen, Canberra continues to supply arms, making us complicit in the deaths of innocent civilians, writes Dechlan Brennan.

One of the things everyone who involves themselves in politics quickly understands is that there is always a level of hypocrisy. Australia lambasting countries such as China for human rights violations while ardently supporting nations such as Saudi Arabia for similar bouts of unedifying aggression is a salient example of this.

The Yemeni civil war has escalated since 2015, when a coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened on behalf of the Yemeni government — which is internationally recognised — against the Houthi rebels. The conflict has taken the lives of more than 100,000 people and a further 4 million have been displaced.

The United Nations (UN) has called it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

In a report presented to the UN human rights council in September 2020 it said “that the parties to the conflict continue to show no regard for international law or the lives, dignity, continuing to supply the parties with weapons”.

In 2016 the UN reported that “Since the beginning of this conflict in Yemen, weddings, marketplaces, hospitals, schools – and now mourners at a funeral – have been hit, resulting in massive civilian casualties and zero accountability for those responsible.”

This hasn’t stopped Australia from continuing to supply weaponry to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Investigative journalist Michelle Fahy reported that between July 1, 2015 and March 31, 2021, that the Australian Defence Department approved “103 permits for munitions exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the same period, the department denied just three permit applications to Saudi Arabia and none for the UAE.”

In 2018 Australia sought to break into the top 10 defence-exporting countries. Various Australian defence ministers have courted more weaponry sales towards both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Australian government does not provide date on where its weapons sales go —only mapping it in regions. Unhelpfully, they lump the Middle East in with Asia. It is shocking is that Australia is involved at all.

The Saudi government has been accused of “indiscriminate air strikes,” with many of these have being conducted by the F-35 which has parts manufactured in Australia. In 2019 The Australian Defence Force Manual (1994) notes that “launching indiscriminate attacks that affect the civilian population” is an example that constitutes “grave breaches or serious war crimes likely to warrant institution of criminal proceedings”. In 2019 photographs were published showing an Australian-built remote weapons system being shipped from Sydney airport to the general department of arms and explosives of Saudi Arabia’s ministry of interior. The Australian Defence Department said the Saudi government was using it only for internal use.

Other abuses perpetrated by the Saudi military include “civilian populations being deliberately starved, medical supplies being blocked, rape, murder, enforced disappearances, torture, and forcing children to fight.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that Australia risked complicity in war crimes if it continued to supply the Saudi-led coalition with arms.

A recent Guardian expose that found Saudi Arabia has used an intense and protracted lobbying campaign — including “incentives and threats” — to shut down a UN investigation into human rights violations committed by all sides in the conflict. One of the accusations was that Riyadh had insinuated to Indonesia — home to the world’s largest Muslim population — that their citizens would come across many obstacles when attempting to get to Mecca for the Haj pilgrimage unless they played ball. The shutting down of this debate was a “huge blow” to the Human Rights Council — as well as for peace in Yemen — as one country was simply able to shut down the debate through intermediate threats. It also shows that other nations that are accused of such crimes can torpedo investigations through ”skillful negotiations’’. For Australia to both maintain their allyship with the Saudi government after this, as well as continue to supply them with arms, is a poor example for a nation that likes to preach about the rule of law.

Australian law prohibits military exports that are inconsistent or contravene the nation’s international obligations or national interests. One of the parameters for prospective exports is human rights — of which both nations that receive Australia’s weaponry are in clear violation. The government has refused to follow the decision of the United States and other allies to cease to dramatically curb their arm shipments to Saudi Arabia. Instead they have followed the lead of the United Kingdom in maintaining secrecy.

The Australian government has become increasingly secretive in its weaponry dealings, and stopped publishing a report into weapons sales in 2014 — something it had previously done annually. They have, however, denied any weaponry they sell is used in the war in Yemen. This is disputed by the CEO of Save the Children, Paul Ronalds, who told Guardian Australia that Australia was unable to guarantee the weaponry they sold didn’t make its way to the Yemeni conflict.

At any rate, Australia maintaining its relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country accused of gross human rights violations, does nothing for its standing in the diplomatic community. If the standard you walk past is the standard you accept, then Australia has failed to uphold those standards. Australia likes to wax lyrically about upholding human rights and in recent days it has become clear that Saudi Arabia will do anything to avoid responsibility for breaching them. Australia is a signatory to human rights charters as well as obligations against war crimes. By profiting off these various violations, they are complicit.

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