Aussie hands and arms in the war on Yemen

I do love #TheFrant. Last week Jan Fran did a great explainer of the horrific crisis in Yemen, including Australia’s involvement.

The crisis in Yemen was catalysed by military operations of a Saudi led coalition involving the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and seven other countries. Over 20 000 have died in the war which has led to the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.

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 5 dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes.

But Australia has both hands and arms in the crisis.

Former special forces hand retired Major General Mike Hindmarsh is now the head of the UAE’s army unit providing troops in Yemen. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that these troops have been using physical, psychological and sexual torture against Yemeni detainees in prisons across the country.

Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, Australia’s defence exports to countries in the Saudi led coalition has vastly increased. The Australian government has granted 16 licences to export defence goods to Saudi Arabia and potentially 33 licences for defence exports to the UAE.

They have also authorised exports of small arms, armoured vehicles and battleships to Oman and Jordan. A Tasmanian designed and built catamaran was damaged in the conflict while supplying UAE troops in Yemen.

We know that during this period, there has been a multi-billion dollar spike, almost a doubling, in the total value of Australia’s defence exports.

But what the government is refusing tell us is 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 in that most basic of information.

In Freedom of Information requests, both Defence, who are responsible for authorising defence exports; and Home Affairs, who keep records of what is actually exported, hide 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.”

The lack of transparency and accountability is unacceptable. It also contravenes the intent of the Arms Trade Treaty which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop so championed and ratified in 2014. At the time, she said even small numbers of illicit weapons can be incredibly destabilising.

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.

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.

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 our human rights obligations.

Under the government’s new policy to increase defence exports, the situation is looking even worse. The government are investing billions of dollars into the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC) to facilitate arms deals with the very countries that have the most woeful human rights records. Recent reports indicate that they too will be immune from public scrutiny.

If the existing government processes for defence exports have allowed such authorisations, the system is fundamentally flawed. The government cannot justify exporting arms to countries responsible for the horrendous situation in Yemen. The parliament urgently needs to undertake a review of Australian defence exports, in line with our obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.

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If you would like to take action on this issue, Amnesty International Australia has a petition calling on the government to stop allowing defence exports to countries fighting in Yemen. Visit their website to sign now.

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