Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The pressure to curb arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Australia is finally considering joining like-minded governments in ending military support to Saudi Arabia.

Armed men in Yemen (Photo: Mohammed Huwais via Getty)
Armed men in Yemen (Photo: Mohammed Huwais via Getty)

The Australian government is finally considering a ban on defence exports to Saudi Arabia. Like-minded governments such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany have stated that they are also strengthening their resolve to end military support to Saudi Arabia because of breaches of international law in its Yemeni military offensive.

In Australia … At least 20 export permits have been granted for the transfer of defence or dual-use goods to Saudi Arabia since 2017.

The war has caused immeasurable suffering to the civilian population and there are reports of significant breaches of international law. Military blockades have prevented the flow of food and medicine into the country. Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have died from extreme hunger and disease since the war in Yemen escalated in 2015.

Last year, the world was aghast at footage of a school bus hit by Saudi bombs. This specific bomb was laser-guided and built in the US as part of an arms deal sanctioned by the US State Department. But in reality, it was the shocking death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi that provided the impetus for action against the Saudis.

In the aftermath of his death, German Chancellor Angela Merkel halted German arms exports to Saudi Arabia, pending a resolution of the investigation into Khashoggi’s murder. Months later, the German foreign minister still faces pressure to go back on the export ban. But Germany has kept to its resolve.

In December, the US Senate voted to withdraw military aid for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. It was thought unlikely that the House of Representatives would follow suit, but following the change to a Democratic majority, the House passed such a resolution by 248 to 177 votes.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has said he’ll use his veto to preserve the Saudi relationship should it come for that.

Earlier this month, the UK House of Lords’ International Relations Committee unanimously reported that the government is breaking the law by issuing export licenses and selling munitions to Saudi Arabia that “are highly likely to be the cause of significant civilian casualties in Yemen”. They are also facing a high court appeal against arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

In Australia, data analysis and the result of Freedom of Information requests, by myself and Sydney based lawyer Kellie Tranter, have uncovered increased authorisations for exports and sales from Australian companies to Saudi Arabia. There is also a concerning lack of transparency. At least 20 export permits have been granted for the transfer of defence or dual-use goods to Saudi Arabia since 2017.

Reporters at the ABC have broken two stories, including one on 7:30 last week, showing Australian businesses who have been selling military and dual-use technology to key countries involved in the war in Yemen. But Defence would still not say if the goods themselves were likely to be used in Yemen.

Last week, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the Senate was considering a similar ban on military exports to Saudi Arabia. This move comes after pressure, from a year-long campaign, for Australia to be true to the spirit of the Arms Trade Treaty in its evolving defence export strategy. Amnesty International has called for a stop to the export of weapons to countries involved in war crimes in Yemen. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the Medical Association for the Prevention of War have also been campaigning on the issue.

But even if the Senate decides to ban defence exports to Saudi Arabia, the fact that millions of dollars in exports have been approved since the crisis in Yemen shows there are systemic flaws in the multiagency system for defence export controls. 

As a party to 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 or violence against women. Transparency and human rights go to the very core of the treaty and countries are expected to provide annual reports on implementation.

Months after receiving the report of the Review of the Defence Trade Controls Act, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne has finally released the report to the public. It was a shock not to see mention of the Arms Trade Treaty, including in the international arrangements governing defence exports. It did, however, recommend greater transparency and scrutiny of export decisions.

Australia’s Defence Export Controls must be updated to account for the country’s obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty, ensuring Australia never again risks the perception of providing support to a regime fighting a war with illegal methods and catastrophic consequences of that being led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

You may also be interested in