Is Australia violating treaty by supplying weapons for Yemen Civil War?

In accordance with the Arms Trade Treaty, Australia must refuse to grant an export licence to defence goods suppliers when those goods are likely to be used in serious breaches of human rights.

Since the beginning of the Yemen Civil War, the total value of Australia’s defence exports has almost doubled. The Australian Government has granted 16 licences to export defence goods to Saudi Arabia and potentially 33 licences for defence exports to the UAE – these countries are among the key aggressors in Yemen. Australia has also authorised exports of small arms, armoured vehicles and battleships to Oman and Jordan.

Authorising defence exports to these nations would appear to contravene the intent of the Arms Trade Treaty, which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop championed and ratified in 2014. Under the treaty, the government must assess proposed exports and refuse an export licence when the goods are likely to be used in serious breaches of human rights. At the time, Ms Bishop said even small numbers of illicit weapons can be incredibly destabilising.

At the beginning of this year, the Australian Government announced a new policy to make Australia one of the top 10 arms exporters in the world. The new policy included a multibillion-dollar investment in the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC) to facilitate arms deals with the very countries that have woeful human rights records. Because these loans will be categorised as ‘public interest’ they will have exemptions from public scrutiny.

The government is refusing to disclose what exactly has been authorised for sale to Saudi Arabia. Is it rockets, other munitions, military vehicles, or something else entirely – military chemicals, perhaps?

When South Australian Senator Alex Gallacher asked the government what type of goods have been authorised for export to Saudi Arabia since April 2016, Defence refused to provide any information.

In responses to Freedom of Information requests, both Defence, who are responsible for authorising defence exports, and Home Affairs, who keep records of what is actually exported, have hidden behind commercial confidentiality.

Both Defence and Home Affairs have hidden behind commercial confidentiality.

Kellie Tranter, lawyer and human rights activist, questions how the government could legitimately claim this information needs to be commercial in confidence. “The information sought is now purely historical data and not specific to any individual supplier, so it is hard to see how any player in the market could claim to be adversely affected by its disclosure.”

Transparency and human rights go to the very core of the treaty and countries are expected to provide annual reports on implementation. But there are concerning holes in the content of Australia’s reports. No authorised exports have been listed to Saudi Arabia and no ammunition (a key product of Australian defence industry) has been listed.

Over 20,000 people have died so far in Yemen’s Civil War. Two-thirds of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. Seven million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and one child under the age of five dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes.

At the moment, Defence is undertaking an independent review of the legislation governing defence exports. But it is unknown if the report will discuss the governance issues and requirements to meet Australia’s human rights obligations. 

Susan Hutchinson is a freelance contributor to The Feed. She is a member of the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women, Peace and Security; and architect of the Prosecute Don’t Perpetuate campaign.