Oceania | Security | Oceania

Australian Weapons Sales: Shrouded in Secrecy

Canberra wants to be a top arms exporter, but its partners draw scrutiny.

Joshua Mcdonald
Australian Weapons Sales: Shrouded in Secrecy

An Australian Army Bushmaster (rear) conducts tactical driving with a Tentara Nasional Indonesia Army (TNI-AD) M113/AS1 (left) during Exercise Wirra Jaya, East Java.

Credit: Commonwealth of Australia 2019

In 2018, then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced his aspirations for the country to become one of the world’s top 10 military equipment exporters within the next decade. 

The government claimed that weapons manufacturers struggled to secure loans from banks due to the hefty price tag attached to manufacturing and exporting, and so pledged a $3.8 billion fund to help local arms exporters enter the international market. 

“This strategy is about job creation. It will give Australian defense companies the support they need to grow, invest, and deliver defense capability. It will make Australian defense exports among the best in the world,” said Turnbull. 

It was an ambitious target given that at the time Australia was ranked 20th in terms of arms-dealing capability and held a market share of just 0.3 percent in the global arms export market.

It is difficult to know whether the plan is coming to fruition due to Australia’s high-level secrecy surrounding all things defense, but according to figures provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Australia fell to 25th place between the time of Turnbull’s announcement in early 2018 and June 2019. During the same time period, however, official figures show that Australia issued $4.9 billion worth of permits, up from $1.6 billion the previous year – a 67 percent increase. 

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Further muddying the loan scheme are repeated warnings from aid groups, arms-trade experts and journalists that weapons exports approved by the Australian government to countries accused of war crimes could be used to commit human rights abuses. In the worst-case scenario, weapons manufactured in Australia could be used on civilian populations in wars abroad. 

The latest revelation emerged just days ago after the Guardian obtained and published documents surrounding Australia’s foreign weapons sales under freedom of information laws.

According to the documents, between June 2018 and July 2019, Australia issued 45 weapons export permits to the United Arab Emirates, 23 to Saudi Arabia, 14 to Sri Lanka, and four to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have both been bogged down for almost five years in a bloody conflict in Yemen, against Houthi rebels believed to be backed by Iran. Since the conflict began, more than 100,000 people have died as a direct result of fighting, while 14 million people are at risk of starvation or death from disease. According to Save the Children, around 85,000 children may have already died from starvation as an indirect result of the conflict. 

Human Rights Watch concluded in a 2018 report that the Saudi-led “coalition conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes killing thousands of civilians and hitting civilian objects, using munitions sold by the United States, United Kingdom and others.” It identified U.S.-origin munitions at the site of two major attacks on civilians in 2018: a coalition bombing of a wedding, which killed 22 people and another strike on a bus filled with children, which left at least 26 dead. 

It’s unknown whether any Australian-made weapons or technologies are being used in Yemen as the details surrounding what exactly has been sold and for what purpose are often redacted by the defense department. 

Adding to the complex relationship between the Australian military and its Arab partners are the more than 100 former Australian soldiers and federal police officers who are now advising the UAE military. Former Australian army Major General Mike Hindmarsh is commanding the United Arab Emirates presidential guard under direct orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. 

The presidential guard has been directly engaged in the fighting in Yemen since the war began. Responding to questions from the ABC on whether Hindmarsh is directing forces fighting inside Yemen, the Defense Department said it is a matter for the UAE.

Since 1996 the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen successive waves of extreme violence plague the country. The war, which officially ended in 2004 but continued in many parts of the country, is the deadliest conflict since World War II, and one of the world’s worst active crises. Around 6 million people have been killed since the war began, while Save the Children estimates another 5 million remain displaced.

Just last week the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC documented violence that “could contain some elements of crimes against humanity through murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillage and persecution.”  

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The chief executive of Save the Children Australia, Paul Ronalds, told the Guardian that the public would be shocked to learn their government was approving weapons sales in such an environment. 

“The fact we weren’t previously aware that Australia was exporting weapons to the DRC says it all really,” said Ronalds. “The public has a right to know where Australian-made arms are going, especially when taxpayers’ money is being used to market the industry to the world.”

During the conflict there was a heavily enforced arms embargo on the DRC, but in 2008 the embargo was lifted to allow arms to be sold directly to the government under strict UN supervisions. Last month, however, a panel of experts told the DRC’s sanctions committee that embargoes were potentially being violated. UN member states may be supplying weapons to the government without notifying the committee, and there are suspicions that some Congolese security forces are transferring weapons and ammunition to armed groups. 

In 2017, two UN investigators, American Michael Sharp and Swedish-Chilean Zaida Catalan, were mysteriously murdered in the DRC while investigating violations of the arms embargoes. 

In Sri Lanka, the government fought a bloody 26-year-long war against the Tamil Tiger rebel group, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives. A panel of experts appointed by the United Nations found “credible allegations” of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides.

The government denied its forces committed any crimes and has resisted any internal investigation, but just this week, newly elected Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as defense minister during the war, admitted that 20,000 missing Tamils who vanished during the conflict are dead. Some of those who went missing handed themselves over to the government in the final weeks of fighting.

Since the war ended the Sri Lankan government has routinely been criticized for stoking ethnic tensions, cracking down on activists, journalists, and victims of the conflict now seeking justice. 

The Australian government claims that every weapons sale permit application is assessed to check for the overriding risk that the weapons may be used to commit human rights abuses. The government has admitted in the past, though, that it does not run any checks on how the equipment is used once it has left the country. 

Previously, Australia published an annual report on arms exports, but stopped doing so publicly in 2004. The government has since become increasingly secretive about defense exports and does not report the country of destination, but rather reports sales by region, making the arms much more difficult to track.

Other major defense exporters, such as the U.K., the U.S., France, and Germany all provide public, detailed annual reports of weapons sales.