Australian company arms Saudi government department responsible for gender based violence

This week, the 104 countries that have signed up to the Arms Trade Treaty will be gathering for their annual meeting in Geneva. This year, their discussions will focus on gender-based violence.

Both the ABC and the Guardian recently published photos of shipments of weapons systems from an Australian manufacturer being shipped directly to the government of Saudi Arabia. The weapons systems were sold to the Ministry of Interior, the government department responsible for quashing public dissent and women’s rights.

Picture of a package label departing Sydney Airport.

Label of item for shipping at Sydney International Airport (Photo supplied by Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights)

This sale breeches our obligations under the international Arms Trade Treaty. The Arms Trade Treaty is supposed to stop the sale of weapons to countries responsible for significant human rights breeches.

The Ministry of Interior is in charge of the police, courts and prisons that are all responsible for gender-based violence. They are also largely responsible for implementing the guardianship system that requires women to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, obtain a passport, or be discharged from prison.

Australian advocates for women’s rights who were at the UN for negotiations of the Arms Trade Treaty were part of the effort include gender provisions in the treaty. The aim of the activists was to help gender based violence by ending the export of the weapons used to facilitate that violence.

Ray Acheson was a leader in those negotiations. She is the Director of the Reaching Critical Will campaign of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. They’ve been working on disarmament issues for over a century.

The legally binding clause of the treaty authorisation of exports must consider if they will “facilitate serious acts of gender-based violence.” Acheson said “Saudi Arabia is a known violator of women’s rights and LGBT rights. The risks of gender based violence inside Saudi Arabia are high.”

Indeed, a 2013 law supposed to reduce domestic abuse still allows male guardians to persistently abuse women. Male relatives are also able to bring legal claims against ‘disobedient’ female dependents who flee domestic violence. Human Rights Watch has documented cases where police have turned women away when they sought to report abuse.

Earlier this year, the male guardianship system returned to the Australian news when Rahaf al-Qunun’s attempted to flee to Australia, escaping her family due to fears for her life. The Ministry of Interior maintains an extensive intelligence network and special police force that has been used to prevent and punish such attempts to break free from the guardianship system.

Over the past twelve months, various elements of the Ministry of Interior have undertaken a campaign of arrests, imprisoning and torturing women’s human rights defenders. Women including Eman Al-Nafjan, Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Samar Badawi were among a dozen leading activists arrested after the ban on women driving was lifted in May last year. Each of them were reportedly tortured while in custody.

The Saudi Arabian public prosecutor’s office had announced that the group undertook “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom.” These security related charges could bring sentences of up to 20 years imprisonment. In reality, the women used social media to speak up about women’s rights in the country.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has called on the Saudi government to “ensure that women activists are able to exercise their right to freedom of expression and association” and that counter-terrorism law, the anti-cybercrime law and regulations for electronic publishing are not used to “abusively to criminalize women human rights defenders.”

The Australian Government needs to use this opportunity to re-examine its processes for authorising arms exports in accordance with the Arms Trade Treaty.

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