Australian Outlook

In this section

Pressure, Profit, and Continuity? Australia's Defence Exports and Yemen’s War

28 May 2021
By Yasmine Yakushova
To mark the third anniversary of the UK backed Saudi terror bombing campaign of Yemen, about a dozen activists staged a protest at Trafalgar Square and later opposite Downing Street. The sign reads

Postures have been turning internationally on arms sales to states involved in Yemen’s conflict. One must question the role and effect of Australia’s defence exports on the crisis.

The destructive war in Yemen is now reaching well into its sixth year, fuelled by international arms supplies and leading to devastating humanitarian consequences. After Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, took control of Yemen’s capital, Saudi Arabia launched a coalition airstrike offensive in 2015 in effort to restore President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s control. The conflict has since evolved into a highly complex crisis involving multiple factions on the ground and external powers. The United States has given considerable backing to the ongoing Saudi-led campaign, including logistical and intelligence support and selling billions in weapons.

With a change in the US stance earlier this year and shifting international momentum, some countries halted arms sales to members of the intervening Saudi Arabia-led coalition. As of February, Canberra refrained from following suit. Australia has echoed calls for peace politically while continuing military exports to members of the Saudi coalition. With figures recently released showing that Australia issued 103 defence export permits for military goods to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) between 2015 and March 2021, questions intensify over Australia’s position.

Recognising that weapons from third states are feeding the war, the United Nations Group of Experts on Yemen has repeatedly reported serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict. Tactics employed in the war have continued to show scant, if any, regard for civilian lives. Indiscriminate coalition airstrikes have repeatedly destroyed critical civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, resulting in thousands of civilian fatalities and further straining a skeletal healthcare system. In Yemen’s city of Taiz, Houthi sniper fire is reported to have killed over 450 children since 2015. Despite numerous efforts to end the violence, the conflict continues to cause immense harm to Yemenis, with over 12,000 civilian deaths and millions on the edge of famine.

Considering the human costs of the conflict, several countries, including Germany and Italy, have halted military exports to coalition members, expressing concern over civilian deaths and human rights violations. Denmark, the Netherlands, and Finland also imposed restrictions on arms sales to members of the coalition. After backing the Saudi coalition since 2015, the US suspended military support for “offensive operations” in Yemen in early 2021. While details of which arms deals will remain suspended are unclear with $23 billion in weapons sales to the UAE recently approved, the policy review is not insignificant. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US supplied 79 percent of Saudi arms imports between 2016 and 2020. Having welcomed the US suspension, the European Parliament again called for all European Union states to ban military equipment sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Despite mounting international pressure, certain states have continued lucrative arms sales to coalition members. After halting weapons exports to Saudi Arabia in 2019, the United Kingdom resumed in 2020, selling billions of dollars worth of weapons along with states like Canada. Facing questions about Australia’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in early 2021, a Defence Department spokesperson defended the current approach, maintaining that export assessments take into account existing information, with permission refused should there be an excessive risk of goods being used counter to Australia’s interests.

However, this does little to dispel perceived tensions over military export approvals to parties involved in Yemen’s war, and Australia’s commitments to promoting human rights, international peace, and security. These commitments were emphasised through Australia playing a major role in the development of the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). State parties to the ATT must assess weapons exports against the potential of their contributing to serious humanitarian law and human rights violations.

Having ratified the ATT, Canberra is obligated to apply these standards and mitigate against risks of Australian arms transfers undermining peace. Australia’s adherence to the ATT and related arms control mechanisms is underscored in Australia’s 2018 Defence Export Strategy: “Defence exports must also be consistent with Australia’s role in promoting security and stability, both regionally and globally. Australia is firmly committed to the ongoing promotion and protection of human rights.” The same strategy outlines Australia’s aim to become a top ten global exporter in defence by 2028, with the Middle East identified as a priority market.

Given the severity of civilian suffering in Yemen though, questions persist about details of Australia’s defence exports and its broader approach. Following the revelation that Australia approved fourteen military exports from Australia to the UAE and Saudi Arabia between August, 2019 and October, 2020, civil society actors urged the government to increase transparency and halt military exports to parties accused of serious violations against Yemeni civilians.

Clarity has also repeatedly been sought in Parliament over the exact nature of Australia’s military support to Saudi Arabia amid concern about violence against civilians in Yemen, such as in 2018 after a coalition air strike hit a school bus. In response, the then minister for defence outlined criteria involved for assessing export applications as “…Australia’s international obligations, human rights, regional security, national security and foreign policy.” It remains open to speculation as to how such criteria and risk assessments are reconciled in relation to authorising defence equipment exports to end users which are active in combat zones like Yemen.

The latest release of Australia’s approvals of defence transfer permits since 2015 includes four other countries in the Middle East in addition to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. According to the new information, 80 permits were approved for goods to the UAE and 23 to Saudi Arabia. The items are not specified beyond including weapons and munitions, as well as explosives and equipment used in non-military industries. With the latest defence export information released following a Freedom of Information request, it appears that Canberra’s more circumspect official position on disclosures has not yet changed.

However, without increasing transparency and measures such as a review of policy guiding decisions on defence exports to coalition members, concerns about Australia’s position will likely continue. Against the shifting tides of states reconsidering arms sales and the continuing devastation in Yemen, it seems high time for a broader discussion about Australia’s approach and potentially, a change of tack.

Yasmine Yakushova is an independent researcher and analyst with experience across international relations, peacebuilding and humanitarian organisations, and business. She holds a Master of Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Sydney and a Bachelor of Social Science (Politics and International Relations) from Curtin University. Her research interests include the arms trade and armed conflict, the protection of civilians, children affected by armed conflict, and civil society’s role in peacebuilding.

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