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An Opaque Defence Export Regime Risks Global Reputation on Arms Control

14 Nov 2023
By Suzanne Varrall
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, the Hon Richard Marles MP inspects an M777 Howitzer from the 4th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery during his visit to the 3rd Brigade at Lavarack Barracks, Townsville, Queensland. Source: LCPL Riley Blennerhassett /

A lack of transparency around Australia’s military exports leaves the government exposed to criticisms that Australian-exported weapons could be used in conflicts like Gaza. Without change, Australia’s credibility as a sponsor of the rules-based international order is at risk. 

Establishing a high international profile on arms control has been a foreign policy priority for Australian Governments since at least the 1980s as part of deliberate efforts to bolster credibility as a supporter of the global rules-based order. On this basis, maintaining a rational and coherent international arms control posture without compromising Australia’s nuclear alliance with the US continues to be a formidable challenge, especially given current questions over AUKUS and the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons.

Australia is a party to all key multilateral instruments regulating nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It is also a member of export control bodies such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and permanent chair of the Australia Group forum for harmonising chemical and biological export controls.

On conventional weapons too, Australia has played a pivotal role in global regulation efforts. Australia was instrumental in the development of the first legally-binding instrument to control the trade in conventional weapons – the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) – as co-author of the original General Assembly Resolution, and chair of the treaty negotiations. The ATT for the first time tied human rights and humanitarian imperatives to the global arms trade, prohibiting arms transfers where a state knows they will be used to commit a serious violation of international law, or where there is an overriding risk they could facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian or human rights law. The foreign minister at the time, Julie Bishop, described ratification of the ATT as a “major foreign policy achievement for Australia.”

Yet, despite having built an international reputation on arms control, Australia’s current defence export regime risks this achievement. By extension, it could undermine Australian credibility as an advocate for a global system governed by the rule of law, and at a time when this system is under significant geopolitical stress, given the Russia-Ukraine conflict and growing strategic competition between the United States (US) and China.

Defence export controls

Under Australian legislation, the export of controlled military and “dual use” items requires a permit issued by the Minister of Defence. Yet Defence does not publish what items are exported, to whom, or for what purpose. The department previously published annual reports on actual exports which included the country of destination and declared value, but stopped providing this information in 2004. Defence now produces quarterly data on the total number of permits issued and their estimated total value, and breaks down permits issued by region. Information on the number of export permits issued by individual countries has subsequently been revealed via freedom of information (FoI) requests or in response to questions asked in Senate Estimates. Still, details of what items were exported have not been disclosed.

Greens Senator David Shoebridge has accused Defence of having “one of the most secretive and unaccountable weapons export systems in the world.” However, national reports on arms exports vary enormously in both the amount of information they contain and the level of detail they provide. Yet most of the world’s largest arms exporters publish far more detailed information on their military exports than Australia. The US, the world’s largest arms exporting nation, publishes relatively comprehensive information detailing the number of licenses and their authorised and shipped value by destination country across 21 separate item categories. Likewise, the European Union (EU), which includes four of the world’s top ten arms exporting nations, reports the number of military export licenses issued, and their value by exporting nation and destination country across 22 separate item categories.

Australian arms exports implicated in international crimes

In response to questions asked by Senator Shoebridge, we know that Australia has approved over 300 defence exports to Israel since 2017. However, we do not know what items were exported or to whom, so we cannot be sure where or for what purpose they may be used. It is possible that some items are being used by the Israeli Defence Force in current operations in Gaza, including in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. These are crimes that the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to investigate.

In the absence of publicly available information on the destination of Australian weapons exports, court action has been initiated in the Federal Court by a group of Palestinian human rights organisations, and supported by the Australian Centre for International Justice, to access all defence export permits to Israel granted since 7 October 2023, when Hamas terrorist attacks took Israel by surprise. The human rights groups claim that by continuing to export arms to Israel, Australia may not be making decisions in accordance with the law and may be breaching its international obligations, including obligations under the four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the Genocide Convention, and other international human rights law. The first-of-its-kind case comes at the same time as protests at Sydney and Melbourne ports attempt to block potential weapons shipments to and from Israel, along with similar protests around the world.

Questions have also been raised around Australia’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and their potential use in violations of international law in the war in Yemen since 2015. Eight years into that deadly conflict, Defence continues to grant export permits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, still without any public accountability. FoI requests have also sought data on weapons transfers to Algeria, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, among others.

When Australia is not willing to disclose who it is exporting to and what it is exporting, it is unaccountable for its compliance with those standards of international law it professes to promote. Rather than reactive arms embargoes, however, a response that brings Australia’s defence export disclosure regime closer in line with those of the US and EU is needed to address the underlying accountability gap. This would best serve Australia’s interests in preserving international credibility and reinforcing the global rules-based order that underpins national security and foreign policy.

Suzanne Varrall is completing a PhD at UNSW in international law with a focus on accountability for international weapons transfers. She is also an Associate at the Australian Human Rights Institute. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.