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.

My year without Coles and Woolworths

I don’t much go into New Year’s resolutions, but this time last year a friend of mine suggested I resolve to not spend a single dollar at Coles or Woolworths for the entire year. Given my view of these two monolithic stores, and my food ethics, it was a challenge I wanted to accept. The year is almost done and I’m now taking the time to reflect on how I achieved the challenge.

The greenhouse emissions of the transport system that takes fresh food and other grocery items from their country or place of origin, to a wholesale market, to a warehouse, trucked to a grocery store, and sometimes onto a second or third store are huge. Products criss-cross the country, and sometimes the world. If you try buying a locally grown mango in Darwin, and it will have been shipped to the wholesale market in Brisbane, before being trucked all the way back to Darwin for retail sale. Then there’s the food miles of importing foods like garlic (commonly imported from China), lemons (often from the USA) or asparagus (from Peru) into that system for them to be bought to you in the off season. On top of that, there’s the hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs) used in the refrigeration of all that food throughout its journey. Many of these chemicals are potent greenhouse gases. HCFCs also deplete the ozone layer. HCFC-22 is the most common refrigerant in Australia. 

I also have social concerns with both businesses. Farmers have been complaining about unfair prices for produce, and unreasonable contract requirements for years. The $2 milk wars were a very visual example of some of these practices, but similar complaints have been made by vegetable producers including those producing potatoes and onions. Indeed, in 2013, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission undertook an investigation of the major supermarkets. They began with over 160,000 complaints, took a deeper look at over 3,000 of those and commenced about 550 individual investigations. Around 140 of these progressed to in-depth investigations, resulting in more than 30 court proceedings, over 30 court enforceable undertakings, and the payment of numerous infringement notices. Most recently, the watchdog launched major legal action against Woolworths for unconscionable conduct toward suppliers. In November and December last year, it is alleged that Woolworths developed a strategy to demand payments totalling $18.1 million from its suppliers simply to increase the supermarket’s profit margin.

Woolworths is also the largest owner and operator of high loss poker machines in the country. The majority of these machines are located in low-socio-economic neighbourhoods. Responding to recent government calls to reduce harm of poker machines, Woolworths took the opposite approach, facilitating and exacerbating the behaviour of addicts.

Fresh food

Before the challenge began, I already bought the majority of my fresh food from my local farmers market. This resolution meant that I needed to better plan my food needs, so I didn’t need to dash to the shop for just that one thing to make dinner complete. The market is a cash only (pretty much) zone, so I go with my $50 and get all my fresh food for the week. I can also get locally grown dried chickpeas, rain fed rice and rice flour and olive oil. I know the name of the person who produced every item in my market bag each week and that’s a great feeling. It is the polar opposite of the Woolworths/Coles shopping experience. I buy locally produced, gold medal winning, free range eggs; heritage beef; biodynamic lamb straight from the farmer; delicious free range poultry; high quality cheeses; locally produced and bottled Jersey milk from a family business; seafood from people who own the boat, catch the fish, and bring it to market for me to buy. I buy the freshest, tastiest vegetables from organic and ‘conventional’ farms within 200 kilometres of my home.

I recognise how lucky I am to have such a good quality farmers market so close, on such a regular basis. I firmly believe that weekly farmers markets are the way to change people’s shopping behaviour, with this regularity there is a viable shopping alternative that can be relatively easily incorporated into a routine. A fortnightly market may be OK, but a monthly market will only lead to specialty and luxury items that people might buy for a treat. A monthly market does not provide a serious alternative for daily food items. I urge market organisers, and communities considering the beginning of a farmers market to plan for a weekly market, containing as much locally produced food as shoppers would reasonably consume within the seasons.

I would highly recommend upcoming markets look for inspiration from the Capital Region Farmers Market. They take great effort to get good variety of produce so that it is possible for shoppers to buy all their food there each week. This does not mean that everything on offer at the supermarket is available at the farmers market, but with due consideration of seasonality and what actually grows in the region, you can easily buy food for a balanced, healthy diet.

In spring and summer I also do a lot of foraging for wild greens, edible weeds and a variety of fruits that I eat fresh and preserve. There’s not much better than walking downstairs to the nature strip to pick some purslane, wild brassica or sheep sorrel to go in your salad. It’s far tastier than shop bought greens, packed with nutrition, and doesn’t cost a cent. It’s also a wonderful excuse to get into nature and relax outside. It’s certainly a superior experience than a peak hour visit to the supermarket.

Dry goods

I buy my flour, nuts and dried beans from my local food co-op. The prices are very reasonable, the range is quite extensive and there are a lot of organic options. The co-op is on my bike ride from home to my office. I take my clear cubes and reusable tins into the store and weigh the containers before filling them up. If you volunteer your time once a month, you get a reasonable discount on your shopping items. They have a good supply of other local fresh produce including fruit and veg, vegan cheeses, tofu and fermented foods. They also have bulk liquids like honey, vinegars, and molasses that you can pour into your own reusable jars and bottles.

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My pantry

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Household products and toiletries

I buy most of my cleaning products, soaps, shampoo, toothpaste and such from my local IGA. I am happy to buy items from them because the store is walking distance from my apartment, the service is friendly and personal, and I prefer to support independent and family owned/operated business. IGA stores are always stocked with items that are reflective of the locals and the owners, providing a community feel that I prefer to the nationwide grocery chains. While IGA still has some power of collective purchasing, stores have more flexibility to buy from local suppliers and don’t have the same power to force unreasonable expectations on suppliers.

I buy my household cleaning products, including soap powder, dish detergent and shower cleaner from IGA. Although, I have just started replacing my shower cleaner with a natural vinegar solution. I often use bi-carbonate of soda for cleaning items such as the stove top, but I buy that from IGA too.

I buy all my laundry products from IGA. I use Aware soap powder to wash my clothes, it comes in a recycled cardboard box, is good to use in a front loader, and is free of the optical brighteners that fade coloured fabrics over time. I have however, discovered that my local food co-op sells bulk laundry detergent, which I may start to use instead of the boxes I buy at IGA. I buy a eucalyptus based wool wash by Earth Choice and the very occasional block of Sard soap for hand washing stubborn stains and grime out of whites.

Shampoo and conditioner were the hardest items for me. I like to buy in large containers, to minimise the packaging I’m responsible for. I like to use a silicon and paraben free shampoo. My IGA doesn’t stock the ‘natural’ version of the brand I like to use. In Canberra, we are lucky have a third supermarket chain, Supabarn. Supabarn does stock my Tresemme shampoo, but the stores are entirely out of my way. This has led me to consider changing brands, to a more ‘natural’ gentler shampoo that is available at my local chemist. The bottles are not available in as large a size as my Tresemme products, but they are organic, made in Australia and smell great.

I buy my shower soap from the farmers market. I love that the market rules only allow food and fresh produce stalls, but several of the olive producers have been allowed to sell olive oil soap alongside their other products. I buy a bar of olive oil soap produced by Homeleigh Grove just on the outskirts of Canberra. It has minimal packaging, is lovely and gently on the skin, and I personally like the people who produce it. I also buy the mini soap bars to put on the towel of my AirBnB guests, as a personal little, local touch.

I recently watched a great little video about how much change you can bring to the world by changing your own behaviour. It makes such a difference. Not only are you reducing your negative impact on the world, by choosing a better way, buying into better, more ethical and sustainable systems, you are making a constructive difference. You are modelling that positive behaviour to your friends and community, and supporting others who are working and living in similarly positive systems.

Will you give it a go this coming new year? Can you do a year without Coles and Woolworths? I would not be surprised if you find it as enjoyable as I did.

If you’d like to read more about the food portion of this shopping challenge, you can head over to my food blog: Susan’s Sumptuous Suppers.

This post was kindly republished by 1 Million Women.