Outrage has been growing in governments around the world over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Numerous high-profile government representatives and business executives have pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh as a result.
Australia, too, has announced its ‘deep concern’ over the slain journalist and has pulled out its representation at the conference. However, despite the strong urgings of Greens leader Richard Di Natale, it has resisted stronger retaliation and has insisted that its military equipment sales and intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia will continue.
Australia’s muted reaction to the Khashoggi disappearance is reflective of its extensive economic relationship with Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region, over which Riyadh has significant sway. It remains the second-largest trading partner for Australia in the region, and a major source of service exports with thousands of Saudi students enrolled in Australian universities. It is also a major security partner in the region, providing military and intelligence support for Australian forces in ongoing operations against ISIS.
But while Australia’s subdued reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance is reasonable so as to not upset its crucial economic and political interests with Riyadh and the wider Gulf region, Canberra has been noticeably measured in its reactions to other issues which have attracted widespread global controversy.
In Myanmar in 2017, amid mounting evidence of the genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Australia was criticised after maintaining military links with the military and for softening language in a UN Human Rights Council resolution, arguing that the language could pre-judge the outcomes of a UN fact-finding mission.
In 2014, it was the only Western nation to oppose an international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, suggesting that an investigation would be ineffective and ignored the economic recovery after its civil war ended in 2009. These measured reactions have attracted political and civil society criticism both domestically and abroad, and in some cases, have left it as the sole dissenting Western voice on issues of global concern. Going forward, this complacency will have serious implications for Australia’s wider foreign, military and economic policies.
This will be increasingly so as Australia has been seeking to grow its fledgling defence industry abroad. In January this year, then-Prime Minister Turnbull announced Australia’s ambitious desire to become the tenth largest global source of military exports.
But in its prolonged attempt to achieve this, it is imperative that Canberra doesn’t deprioritise its moral compass. To ensure this doesn’t happen, it must seek to align its economic interests more closely with its broader foreign policy while meeting its international obligations. While Canberra has been pursuing a lucrative formal defence agreement with Saudi Arabia, other arms exporters such as Spain have halted exports to the nation over its intervention in Yemen’s civil war. Others such as Norway and Germany have limited exports to the United Arab Emirates over its involvement in the conflict.
There are numerous ethical issues that arise with Australia’s military links to nations with lacklustre human rights records, authoritarian governments and those who have engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is crucial that Australia more closely aligns its international obligations and economic objectives so as not to harm important trade relationships, but also to consider whether engaging in ethically questionable trade in controversial markets is worth the political and diplomatic risk.
Canberra should also seek to be a more vocal advocate against incidents like the Khashoggi murder. As a member of the UN Human Rights Council and a strong representative of the Indo-Pacific region in international fora, Australia has a duty to speak out on human rights abuses wherever and whenever they may occur, even by economic partners or allies.
This has been the case with Saudi Arabia, with the UK, Germany and France – traditionally partners of Riyadh – being openly critical of the Saudi explanation and asking for “proper accountability and due process for any crimes committed”. These countries, like Australia, have appropriately been cautious in their statements, giving Riyadh the benefit of the doubt. However, Australia must begin to seek collaboration with nations both in the Indo-Pacific and globally and become more open about the protection of values like human rights. This will become increasingly important with the US’ growing unilateralism and consistent criticism levelled against multilateral organisations – Canberra must refuse to overlook human rights violations elsewhere and step up with like-minded nations to protect human rights.
Australia cannot continue to be complacent in a global environment where human rights violations and abuses of diplomatic privileges are becoming more flagrant and prevalent. As a global advocate for human rights, it must begin to pry itself away from interests that may clash with this, while also carefully balancing any action with maintaining its important economic and trade relationships. The Khashoggi disappearance should be a wake-up call for Australia to step up for human rights advocacy globally.
Euan Moyle is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.