Australia urged to stop selling weapons to countries accused of war crimes | Australia news
Human rights groups say it is “unthinkable” that Australia has been secretly exporting arms to the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries whose militaries have been consistently accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Guardian revealed on Tuesday that the Australian government had approved the export of weapons to the Democratic Republic of Congo four times in 2018-19. It has also issued more than 80 weapons export permits to Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The DRC has been gripped by successive waves of violence, rebellions, protests and political turmoil for decades. As recently as Friday, the United Nations warned ethnic killings and rape occurring in the DRC represented crimes against humanity.
Save the Children estimates more than five million people have been forced to flee their homes in the DRC alone, and says millions of children are “desperately in need of humanitarian assistance”.
The chief executive of Save the Children Australia, Paul Ronalds, said 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,” Ronalds told the Guardian.
“It is unthinkable that Australian arms could potentially be fuelling these conflicts, and it’s kept a secret from the public.
“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.”
Arms sales to the DRC are strictly controlled by sanctions, first imposed during the country’s brutal civil war, which killed five million people between 1997 and 2003.
Arms sales were previously prohibited to the DRC government, but this embargo was lifted in 2008. However, all arms sales to the country must be declared to the UN security council.
Last month, the council’s sanctions committee for the DRC was told by a panel of experts that arms embargoes were potentially being violated through undeclared weapons sales.
“The co-ordinator also expressed concerns on potential violations of the arms embargo by member states that supplied weapons to the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo without notifying the committee, as well as the transfer of weapons and ammunition from some of the Congolese security forces to armed groups.”
Militaries and militias in all of those countries have been consistently accused of human rights violations, including war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
The extent of and extreme secrecy surrounding Australia’s foreign weapons sales are revealed by documents obtained by the Guardian under freedom of information.
The department of defence used the ‘commercial-in-confidence’ clause of the freedom of information act to refuse to reveal how many weapons have been sold, to whom, for how much, or for what purpose.
Save for their existence and confirmation of country of destination, the documents have been almost entirely redacted by the government. That decision is being challenged by the Guardian.
Phil Lynch, the director of International Service for Human Rights, said it was difficult to imagine how weapons sold by Australia to countries responsible for widespread and systematic human rights violations could not in any way contribute to those abuses.
“Governments and military and security personnel in each of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Sri Lanka and the DRC have been found to be responsible for or complicit in grave, widespread and systematic human rights violations. In each case, weapons, weapons systems and surveillance technology sold from abroad have been used in and enabled these atrocities.”
Lynch told the Guardian international human rights law was clear: the Australian government and companies had a duty to protect human rights and to ensure that their goods, products, services and supply chains were not implicated in human rights violations.
“It’s pretty basic. Australia shouldn’t be arming authoritarian regimes and brutish thugs.”
And he said Australia’s secrecy over its foreign weapons sales was unjustified.
“Access to information, particularly information pertaining to possible human rights violations, is a fundamental tenet of democracy and of good and accountable government.”
All exports of arms require licences from the defence department’s export controls branch. The department has previously told Senate estimates that export licences are not issued if the weapons are likely to be used in human rights abuses.
“If we assess that they would be used [to commit human rights abuses], we would not approve the permit,” Tom Hamilton, then acting deputy secretary of the defence department’s strategic policy and intelligence group, said in February.
Defence says it runs rigorous risk assessments on weapons prior to export. That process involves examining human rights, Australia’s international obligations, foreign policy, national security and regional security.
But Australia has grown increasingly secretive about the weapons it manufactures and sells overseas. Previously, it produced an annual report about foreign weapons sales, but stopped declaring the information in 2004.
Unlike major defence exporters the UK, the US and France, Australia does not provide information on the country of destination of defence exports.
Democracies similar to to Australia – such as the Netherlands, the UK, the US, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Spain and France – all provide public, detailed annual reports, covering information such as destination countries, value of exports, trends and reasons for permit denials.
Some exporting countries provide information on permit approvals on a monthly or even real-time basis.