Australian weapons shipped to Saudi and UAE as war rages in Yemen: The Guardian
In the same week UK courts declared British arms exports to Saudi Arabia to be unlawful, a large shipment of Australian-built remote weapons systems left Sydney airport.
Secret photographs, obtained by Guardian Australia, confirm the identity of the buyers – the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates governments, whose forces are currently waging a devastating war in Yemen. Also marked are the suppliers of the equipment, which the manufacturer boasts is “significantly enhancing lethality” in combat.
Labelling on pallets destined in June for Saudi Arabia’s ministry of interior, specifically the general department of arms and explosives, identify the seller as ATK Alliance Techsystems Operations (Orbital ATK), a US-based company which sells the equipment manufactured by an Australian firm, Electro Optics Systems (EOS).
The weapons systems shipped to the UAE armed forces’ joint logistics command from Sydney’s international airport were supplied by EOS.
The R400s remote weapons station allows small cannons, guns or missile launchers to be mounted on military and light vehicles and operated remotely.
There has been long-running concern over arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition of countries waging war in Yemen.
The war, which began in 2015, has displaced more than 3million people, brought widespread famine and disease, and is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have been accused of potential war crimes and multiple atrocities including indiscriminate bombing campaigns.
In June new figures estimated around 100,000 people had been killed in the conflict – including around 11,700 killed in 4,500 events which directly targeted civilians.
In an interview with the Defence Technology Review in 2018, EOS chief executive, Ben Greene, said the RWS was a “game changer” which “meets and overmatches current threats”.
“This innovative technology for the first time allows 30mm cannon systems to be deployed with unprecedented accuracy on light vehicles, significantly enhancing lethality and protection without compromising mobility, and at low cost.”
EOS was revealed by the ABC last year to have struck a lucrative deal to ship weapons overseas. The company would not confirm the identity of its buyer, but said none of its products had been deployed in Yemen.
In the wake of EOS’s links to the Yemen conflict becoming public, Australia’s superannuation peak body divested from the company, beginning its sell-off in early March and concluding last month.
In a letter to NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, the chair of IFM Investors & Industry Super Australia, Greg Combet, said the organisation wouldn’t comment on individual companies but noted the “ceasing” of investment.
“IFM invests across a range of asset classes and industry sectors and recognise that our investments are potentially exposed to a range of environmental, social and governance risks factors,” Combet said in the letter.
“To ensure these issues are considered prior to investing, IFM Investors has a robust approach to integrating ESG into our investment decision making process.”
Combet said the defence industry in Australia and the US was “extremely stringent”, and the industry was an important part of Australia’s economy.
Last month the UK court of appeal found the British government failed to properly assess the risk of misuse, making no assessment of any past pattern of violations by the Saudi-led coalition, when approving exports.
Australia defends its exports in a similar fashion, claiming every licence application is assessed to check for risk of the end use breaching human rights and other international obligations.
For several months earlier this year the US Congress had been blocking sales of military weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, specifically over concerns about the the civilian casualties in Yemen. In May president Donal Trump defied the block to restart sales.
Australian Greens leader, Richard di Natale, said while other countries were banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia “Australia is continuing to profit off both nations’ warmongering, while remaining tight-lipped or wilfully ignorant about where our weapons are ending up”.
“It’s time to end our arms trade with human rights abusers, and rip up the government’s obscene plans to make Australia a global arms dealer.”
In February Tom Hamilton, then acting deputy secretary of the defence department’s strategic policy and intelligence group, repeatedly told a Senate estimates hearing that an export licence would not be approved if the weapons were going to be used in Yemen.
“If we assess that they would [to commit human rights abuses], we would not approve the permit,” he said.
However the Australian government has admitted that it does not run any checks once the product has left the country.
Arms exports from Australia are administered by the Defence Exports Controls Branch of the defence department.
Australian defence officials have delegated authority to approve exports by Australian companies, but only the minister can deny them.
A spokeswoman for defence said exports were subjected to a rigorous risk assessment process that examines Australia’s international obligations, foreign policy, human rights, national security, and regional security. Defence said it consulted widely on arms exports and carefully considered whether there was a risk of “diversion”.
“As part of this process, defence assesses export applications to identify whether the export would prejudice the security, defence or international relations of Australia,” she said.
“This assessment includes consideration of whether there is an overriding risk that the exported items could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
“As part of these considerations, defence can require that commitments are made by the end user to not transfer or use the goods and/or technology for other than the original stated purpose without defence’s consent.”
Defence said it can revoke permits or approach the foreign government if arms are diverted from their intended purpose.
Freedom of information documents released last year were extensively redacted but revealed lengthy internal discussions of a company’s request to export remote weapons systems. Defence recommended approval as it was “unlikely to be used in contravention of human rights law or international humanitarian law”.
Applications are assessed against five criteria: international obligations, human rights, national security, regional security, and foreign policy.
The language of the criteria is not explicit. Three of the criteria call for the assessors to consider just whether the weapon “might” be used in a way that breaches obligations.
Only the human rights and foreign policy criteria call for explicitly identifiable risks.
The newly-formed Australian Arms Control Coalition, a collection of civil society groups, said the images raised a “whole range of questions” about what was being done with Australian arms, and what checks and balances were in place to prevent them being used in human rights abuses. Kellie Tranter, a lawyer with the coalition, said the lack of guarantees that arms wouldn’t be used in humanitarian law violations was “unacceptable”.
“Australians should know who their government is sending arms to and how those arms are being used, and they should have concrete guarantees that those arms won’t be used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) or international human rights law,” Tranter said.
She said the UK court’s decision to halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia also raised “the possibility” that Australia was also failing to conduct proper due diligence on where its arms were ending up.
The Arms Control Coalition’s chair and Save the Children campaigner, Joe Rafalowicz, said Australia could no longer turn a blind eye to the role foreign weapons were playing in the war in Yemen.
“It is unthinkable that Australian made defence exports could be helping fuel abuses in the war in Yemen, which has left more than 22 million people in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance, while some 85,000 children have died from the effects of war including starvation,” he said.
EOS and the Australian defence minister have been contacted for comment.