Josephine Warnant | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow
Recent reporting by The Guardian revealed that Australian companies are selling weapons and military technology to countries accused of war crimes. Information obtained through freedom of information laws shows that nearly 100 weapons export permits were granted for weapons to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka, who have all been accused of committing war crimes or other human rights abuses.
Last financial year, Australia issued approximately $4.9 billion worth of permits, up from $1.6 billion in 2017-18. The Department of Defence has previously told Senate estimates that export permits are not provided if it is likely that weapons will be used to commit human rights abuses. The Department also says that it runs rigorous risk assessments on weapons prior to export.
But, over time, Australia has grown increasingly secretive about our weapons exports. In 2004, the Australian government stopped sharing information about the countries that it exported weapons to. Australian exports are now only publicly reported on by region. This practice differs from other well-established democracies such as the UK, USA and the Netherlands who all provide detailed public reports about their weapons export practices.
In 2018, then Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull announced his goal to make Australia one of the world’s top ten military equipment exporters within the next decade.
This export strategy had the aim of achieving “greater export success to build a stronger, more sustainable, and more globally competitive Australian defence industry to support Australia’s defence capability needs.” To achieve this, a $3.8 billion Defence Export Facility was announced to help Australian companies finance overseas sales.
In 2017, Australia was ranked 18th in global arms exports by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. According to more recent figures, Australia has fallen to 25th place.
The issuing of weapons export permits for weapons to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka raises serious questions about the application of our government’s policies to prevent such weapons being used to commit war crimes or other human rights abuses.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is currently under investigation from the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during armed conflict. Alleged crimes include patterns of rape, torture, forced displacement and the illegal use of child soldiers.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been leading a coalition of nations in the Yemeni Civil War. This conflict has seen thousands of civilians killed, tortured detainees, raped civilians and the use of child soldiers. This has sparked human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to question the provision of weapons to the Saudi government.
As far back as 2017, Human Rights Watch wrote that “we urge the [Australian] government to suspend the sale or transfer of any weapons or materiel to Saudi Arabia until it curtails its unlawful attacks in Yemen and credibly investigates past alleged violations of the laws of war.”
Between June 2018 and July 2019, Australia issued 14 weapons export permits for weapons to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government has been accused of war crimes including attacks on civilians and civilian buildings, executions of combatants and enforced disappearances, abuse and torture of Tamil citizens, democracy activists, journalists and government opponents.
The Australian government currently does not run any checks on the use of equipment once it has left the country, and has granted weapons export permits for countries accused of war crimes or other human rights abuses without public knowledge. The rise in value of weapons export permits and the increasing secrecy about the countries to which the permits are directed to, raises serious questions about Australia’s responsibility to ensure our defence industry is not benefiting from the export of weapons used, or likely to be used, in the committing of war crimes or other human rights abuses.
Josephine Warnant is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.