Fears about Australian military technology ending up in the wrong hands have been reignited by moves to share more defence technology with the United States.
Australia is aiming to become a top 10 exporter of defence goods. Critics have attacked a lack of transparency over what weapons Australia exports, and the possibility of those exports being used in civil wars and human rights abuses.
The government announced earlier this year it would partner with the US on a guided missile project.
Ahead of a trip to the US next week, the defence minister, Peter Dutton, reportedly told an American Chamber of Commerce session that Australia and the US need to pool knowledge and resources to develop a range of missile and cyber technology, and autonomous drones that can “swarm” or work together.
Dutton said China’s “increasingly coercive” behaviour meant Australia had to be ready for any eventuality, and as part of that governments and the defence industry had to work to “reduce barriers to collaboration and integration”.
In response to freedom of information requests, Defence revealed it has approved defence exports to countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries.
Exports are divided into two parts. Part 1 includes military goods and non-military lethal goods (such as non-military firearms), and Part 2 includes dual-use goods that were developed for commercial purposes but can be used “either as military components or for the development or production of military systems or weapons of mass destruction”.
Australia has issued almost 200 Part 1 permits to Israel (which has been accused of war crimes), and a further 43 Part 2 permits to Israel in the five years to 31 March.
Save the Children deputy chief executive officer, Mat Tinkler, said as Australia aims for a bigger share of the export market, safeguards and transparency should be increased.
“We don’t necessarily follow the weapons into the hands of the ultimate user,” he said.
“The Yemen conflict is a good example where we’ve issued permits to the UAE or Saudi Arabia, prime combatants in that conflict. We know in that conflict human rights abuses have occurred, children have been killed. If Australian weapons are being used that’s a massive problem.
“Australia can’t say hand on heart that our weapons aren’t being used.”
Medical Association for Prevention of War president, Sue Wareham, said “weapons change hands”, and that Australia’s increasing interoperability with the US was “deeply troubling”.
In the Middle East the US has lost control of weaponry, she says, and other weapons have changed hands in Yemen.
“To imagine we … can always keep control of our own weaponry is just fanciful.”
Armed drones are a particular problem, Wareham said, because people are misidentified and become collateral.
On Middle Eastern exports, defence analyst Marcus Hellyer said Defence hides behind “commercial-in-confidence” when refusing to disclose what weapons Australia is exporting.
“I’m sure Defence follows the letter of the law,” he said.
“But they’ve admitted it’s hard to track it once it’s gone overseas. If you sell a weapons system to the Saudi Arabians, it’s hard to track whether it’s used in Yemen. Defence doesn’t have weapons inspectors in Yemen checking whether they’re doing the right thing.”
He points out that Australia publishes a glossy catalogue detailing what’s for sale (the Australian military sales catalogue), but not what we’re selling. The disclosures are incomplete and patchy, he said, and more transparency is needed.
Greens senator Jordon Steele-John said Australia should be working to de-escalate tensions in the region, instead of doing military deals with the US and trade deals with China, and getting stuck in the middle of two nuclear-armed powers.
He described the latest moves to further weaponise as an “absurd contortion of joining America in a bit of chest beating while enjoying the status of being China’s largest trading partner”. The Greens want to scrap the idea of becoming a top ten weapons manufacturer and allowing US military operations on Australian soil, while engaging in diplomacy in the region.
Dutton has been approached for comment.
Australia’s statement of compatibility with human rights says Australia’s regulatory framework for export controls is “reflective of international best practice and continues to support the responsible export and supply of defence and dual-use goods and technologies”.
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