On 21st June, the British government’s transfer of weapons to Saudi Arabia was deemed unlawful by the UK Court of Appeal. The transfer was deemed unlawful as a result of neglect on the government’s behalf to assess the past conduct of the recipient of the export, in particular Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict. The government has since suspended any new arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia until the impact of the ruling on its exports has been negotiated. A central argument made by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), stating the UK never clearly stated whether the Saudi-led coalition committed past violations of international law, was instrumental in securing the decision. It is likely the government will have to change the process for future export applications and reprocess all current permits.
There are hopes that the landmark decision will be instrumental in persuading the Australian government to also suspend their arms exports to Saudi Arabia, after secret photos obtained by The Guardian revealed yesterday a large shipment of Australian-built remote weapons systems destined for buyers, Saudi Arabia, left Sydney Airport. The shipment’s supplier was identified as ATK Alliance Techsystems Operations, a US-based company which sells the equipment manufactured by Australian firm, Electro Optics Systems, who the ABC revealed in February had received financial assistance and lobbying support targeting Saudi Arabia from the Australian government.
“Christopher Pyne MP has visited foreign capitals with me to provide assurance of Australia as a reliable defense partner and supplier to its allies”, stated EOS Chief Executive, Ben Greene last year.
Legal Counsel for Save the Children Australia, Grace Williamson, has compared similarities between the UK and Australian legal system, and expresses hope for a similar outcome regarding arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
“While it remains to be seen whether similar legal avenues could be pursued in Australia, the outcome of the appeal will certainly be watched closely, as pressure continues to mount here and abroad to halt military exports to the prime combatants in the devastating Yemeni war.”
There is significant international support to ban arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Germany extended a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, originally implemented in October 2018. Finland, Norway, Denmark and Austria have already suspended arms trading with the Saudi regime, while Italy, Denmark and Finland have announced plans to follow Germany in eventually banning arms exports. The US Congress has even called for a suspension in arms exports to the Saudi regime. On 17th July, the Democratic-led House voted to block the Trump administration from selling weapons and aircraft maintenance support to Saudi Arabia. Despite passing the first of three resolutions of disapproval with a winning vote of 238-190, Trump pledged to veto remaining resolutions. However, the push is still there. Where is Australia’s push?
This push is strongly advocated for by the Australian Arms Control Coalition (AACC), a civil society organization comprised of Amnesty International, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network, the Medical Association for Prevention of War, Oxfam Australia, Save the Children, SumOfUs, and Wage Peace, whose aim is to create greater transparency surrounding Australia’s defense export processes. Prominent lawyer for the AACC, Kellie Tranter raised her concerns on the lack of transparency surrounding the Australian government’s actions, and likened their behaviour to the behaviour of the British government that has now been legally scrutinized. “This significant decision, which forced the UK government to halt issuing all licenses to Saudi Arabia, raises the possibility that Australia’s system is also falling short of a suitable due diligence process”, Ms Tranter said.
An investigation into the Australian Government’s process of approval for arms exports to Saudi Arabia is imperative if its citizens are to be assured their taxpayer money is not supporting human rights abuses in Yemen. Whether that be in a similar fashion to proceedings undertaken in the UK Court of Appeal, in the form of a case against the Australian government in the Federal Court, or even a Royal Commission into the issue, action needs to be taken, and lessons should be learnt from the UK.