The Australian Government has come under criticism for breaching the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and failing to confront the role its arms exports play in the Yemeni Civil War. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) revealed in February that the federal government had granted an export license and committed more than $36 million to the Canberra-based Electro Optics Systems (EOS), a company responsible for developing remote weapons systems (RWS) destined for Saudi Arabia. Lawyer and human rights activist, Kellie Tranter, revealed that despite Freedom of Information requests confirming 16 granted military licenses for export to Saudi Arabia, the federal government had neglected to include reference to these in Australia’s 2016 and 2017 annual reports to the ATT Secretariat.
On 30th January 2018, EOS released a statement on their website claiming that they had been awarded an AU$410 million contract for their new R-400S-Mk2 RWS to an “overseas customer”. In the same statement, they paid tribute to support provided by the Commonwealth in co-ordinating “complex licensing issues”. When asked by Senator Richard Di Natale in a Senate estimates hearing if the RWS would be used in Yemen, acting Deputy Secretary of Defence, Tom Hamilton, was unable to give a clear answer. He replied: “Senator I can state categorically that our assessment process is followed for each and every permit and that includes the assessment of the overriding risk they will be used to commit human rights abuses”.
Australian human rights groups, including Save the Children, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have expressed concern over the lack of transparency surrounding details of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and their potential use in the Yemeni conflict: “The Australian Government has been saying repeatedly, ‘Trust us, we’re abiding by the terms of the Arms Trade Treaty’, but the reality is we simply don’t know, because there is no transparency about what weapons have been provided to Saudi Arabia”, stated Australian director of HRW, Elaine Pearson.
Throughout much of Australia’s manufacturing history, the nation has maintained an agreement across party lines to sell only non-lethal systems overseas. However, an alarming new focus on defence exports has seen $195 billion committed to building Australia’s defence capability under Turnbull’s 2016 White Paper, and increased lobbying of the Saudi Government under then Defence Minister, Christopher Pyne, in partnership with EOS. EOS released data projecting a 45 per cent per annum growth beyond 2020 and 2021 and attributed this growth largely to orders for its remote weapons systems, including a $450 million contract from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who have also been accused of committing human rights violations in the Yemeni conflict.
There is valid cause for concern, given that this push to build defence ties with Saudi Arabia comes amidst worsening conditions in the Yemeni conflict; HRW estimates 6,872 civilians have been killed, and 14 million people are at risk of starvation. It is hard to take seriously any claims from the Australian government that they are providing life-saving assistance to people in Yemen, when its donations of $23 million of aid are compared to the more than $36 million it granted to the export of weaponry to potential perpetrators of human rights violation in the very same conflict. The Australian government has been ‘considering’ the ban of arms sales to Saudi Arabia for far too long, with no concrete steps taken to influence this eventuality; it seems instead to have done the opposite.
With the newly appointed Minister for Defence Industry under Scott Morrison’s government, Linda Reynolds, committing to the 2016 White Paper, the likelihood of Australia banning arms exports to Saudi Arabia is looking improbable. Germany has already banned the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, while Italy, Denmark and Finland have announced plans to do so. Australia needs to follow suit to guarantee that its exports are not landing in the hands of despots committing potential human rights violations. At the very minimum, the Australian government needs to be more transparent about where its exports are landing, and where Australia’s taxpayers’ money is being invested.