Exclusive by defence correspondent Andrew Greene
The Defence Department has granted dozens of weapons export permits over the past two years to nations accused of mass human rights violations and war crimes.
The ABC can reveal approval is routinely given for Australian-made lethal technology to be sent to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, but the federal government insists careful consideration has been given to each decision.
Official figures from Defence confirm 200 permits for “military or dual-use” exports were issued in total for the three nations between 2021 and 2022, although during the same period thousands of approvals were also given to countries such as the US and New Zealand.
Number of permits issued for military or dual-use exports
Country 2021 1 January 2022- 9 November 2022
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 17 21
United Arab Emirates 36 25
Indonesia 52 49
Greens senator David Shoebridge, who has pursued details of the deals during budget estimates, claims Australia is doing business with “some of the worst human rights abusers on the planet”.
“Australian weapons are helping to fuel the brutal war in Yemen, causing the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe forcing millions of children into hunger,” he said.
“It’s a war on children and these shocking new weapons export figures show Australia has blood on its hands.”
Defence has declined to offer any other details of the weapon sales to the Middle East and Indonesia, but the ABC understands they include remote weapon stations, small arms, ammunition and armoured transport equipment.
“What is concerning is just how little transparency there is on Australia’s defence exports. We’re told almost nothing,” Senator Shoebridge says.
Human rights activists have long accused Saudi Arabia and the UAE of committing mass atrocities while leading a coalition fighting a war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.
For decades evidence has also emerged of alleged torture and massacres of innocent people by Indonesia’s military while trying to suppress the West Papuan Independence movement.
Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy says all exports to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia have been dutifully “assessed against Australia’s export controls legislative criteria”.
“The Australian government takes its export control obligations seriously, including as a member of the international export control regimes,” he said.
“The Department of Defence assesses all defence export applications on a case-by-case basis.
“This includes careful consideration of a broad range of factors, including Australia’s international legal obligations, as well as human rights, regional and national security, and foreign policy considerations.”
During 2021 and 2022 Defence Export Controls approved close to 3,500 military and dual-use export permits to multiple destinations around the world, with the top five recipients being the US, New Zealand, UK, Germany and Canada.
Mr Conroy insists “if overriding risks to Australia’s security, defence, or international relations had been identified, the permits would have been refused”.
Calls for Australia to follow US and Europe to increase transparency
The Defence Department consistently refuses to release details of individual weapons exports citing “commercial sensitivities”, despite Australian defence companies regularly promoting their overseas sales, and other comparable nations publishing data.
Across Europe and the United States governments have moved to publish detailed information about their weapons sales, often including the precise arms involved, and their value.
John Blaxland from the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre argues the new figures on weapons exports are not surprising given the existing economic and security cooperation this country has with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Indonesia.
“Australia trades with these countries, there’s aspects of the trade that some people aren’t going to be all that comfortable with, but this is standard fare,” he said.
“We can’t help but do business with these countries. To pretend that we are going to engage with them on one level and then disengage with them on another is not realistic.”
However, Professor Blaxland says he shares Senator Shoebridge’s concern about the lack of transparency over Australia’s global arms industry.
“Australia can afford to be a lot more open and transparent about its transactions, absolutely,” he said.
“We have a bit of a complex, we’re a middle power with small power pretentions and we sometimes need to get over ourselves.”