‘Secretive’ Australian Defence Exports Face Legal Action

As the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas enters its seventh week, the Australian government is facing increased pressure over its potential involvment and stance. Palestinian human rights groups have this month launched legal action after the Greens confronted the Department of Defence over its “secretive” exports to Israel.

At an October Senate Hearing, it was revealed that Australia has approved more than 350 defence export permits to Israel since 2017. This includes 52 exports in this year alone, constituting more than any other country we export to.

Questions from Greens Senators at the hearing probed whether the permits involved lethal technology, and whether any had been granted since Hamas’ terrorist attack on the 7th of October, and Israel’s subsequent response.

Greens Senator David Shoebridge criticised the government’s ‘secretive’ export system: “Our government doesn’t tell us who we’re exporting weapons to; doesn’t tell us what the weapons are; doesn’t tell us who profits here in Australia from the sale of weapons”.

Defence Department’s Murky Military Exports

But Defence representatives were unable to give clear answers, insisting approvals “may involve a weapon or [they] may not. We don’t go into the details of individual permits.” Military export permits cover both military-specific and dual-use goods – technology that can be used for both civilian and military ends, such as radios. Even if permits are military-specific, the goods exported may not be arms, but can include provisions like body armour, software or vehicle parts.

Under the Arms Trade Treaty, to which Australia is a signatory, the government must stop any military exports if there is even suspicion they may be used to commit ‘gross human rights violations’. But as Lauren Sanders of the University of Queensland says, “it’s difficult to know how the government is determining what they consider to be human rights abuses. Establishing breaches of these kinds of provisions is very difficult because there’s a lot of evidence that needs to be provided.”

And there’s no similar obligation of public transparency about exports incumbent upon ATT members. Thus far, the Australian government has refused to disclose exactly what is being exported, what exports are used for, or who makes them.

And while Defence maintains each permit is assessed on a case-by-case basis for risk of violating international rights obligations, they also do not disclose the processes through which such decisions are made. For example, despite their insistence careful consideration is given to each permit, the ABC revealed this year that the government routinely approves the export of Australian-made lethal technology to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Indonesia – nations with less-than-stellar rights records.

Palestinian Human Rights Groups Launch Legal Bid in Response

In response to the government’s inability to clarify the content and use of their military exports to Israel, a coalition of Palestinian human rights groups have launched legal action in the federal court, seeking “access to all permits allowing the export of arms and weapons to Israel that have been granted by the Minister for Defence since 7 October 2023.”

The ACIJ, which is backing the application, detailed the request and its justification in their press release on Novemeber 6th.

The application, lodged by organisations like Al-Haq, the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, is supported by the Australian Centre for International Justice. “If Australian-made weapons are being used against Palestinian civilians, our clients and the public deserve to know,” said Rawan Arraf, Executive Director at ACIJ.

Meanwhile, the UN’s special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, Francesca Albanese, met with the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts, last week to express her concern over the “leeway” she said Australia was giving Israel over its actions in Gaza. She warned that “Australia should be consistent and coherent with its international law obligations. The grave risk [of genocide] is there.”

Ms Albanese also expressed that she “would love not to see this sort of football match situation [between] the pro-Palestinians and the pro-Israelis”, because people on both sides were “suffering tremendously”.

Incidences of both Antisemitic and Islamophobic harassment have risen sharply in Australia since the recent escalation of violence.

Cover image: Arlington National Cemetery, licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

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