Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 June 2017



8:47 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Earlier today I brought to the Senate a resolution on Australian government sponsored arms deals to Saudi Arabia and on the war in Yemen, and I proposed that the Senate support, among other things, a unilateral arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. The motion did not call for complex negotiations with allies or UN Security Council resolutions but for Australia to stop pouring petrol on these fires on the other side of the world. Violence has way of coming home.

Even if you are someone who could not point to Yemen on the map, Mr Christopher Pyne, the 'fixer', is leading delegations to do arms deals with the regime that is bombing Yemen into a man-made famine, and he is using your tax dollars to do it. If you believe, as I do, that Australia can play a powerful role on the world stage, standing for human rights and the rule of law, then one of our first acts should be to start by restricting the flow of weapons and military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The origins of the civil war in Yemen are far more complex than a simple sectarian contest over a power transition in 2011. They are certainly more complex than I can do justice to tonight. The present escalation began as a combination of corruption, poverty, weak civil society and governance institutions, and exploitation by outside actors, including al-Qaeda. But, by March 2015, a Saudi Arabian led coalition had begun an aerial and ground campaign against forces loyal to the former, kleptocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now all sides have committed human rights violations and atrocities, but at no time has this ever been a symmetrical contest.

What we see now is one of the most horrific and underreported conflicts anywhere in the world. Well over 10,000 people have died. There are more than three million internally displaced persons. Eighty per cent of the population of Yemen needs humanitarian assistance. An analysis of the conduct of Saudi Arabia and its allies reveals its chilling methods. This is not a conventional war in any sense of the word. It is instead a high-technology assault on Yemeni men, women and children. It is first and foremost a war on civilians. Saudi Arabia's advanced air force and artillery units are targeting markets, hospitals, schools, civilian businesses and mosques. They are targeting food distribution points, aid depots, railway lines, power stations, water treatment plants and ports.

An air strike on a packed market in northern Yemen in March of this year killed 97 people, all of them civilians. Twenty-five of them were children. A funeral was bombed in October of last year, killing more than 100 mourners and wounding many hundreds more. Two days ago another market in northern Yemen was hit by artillery fire, killing at least two dozen people. On 15 August last year the Saudi led coalition conducted an air raid which hit a Medicins Sans Frontieres supported hospital in Hajjah which killed 19 people. That was a hospital. It was the fourth such attack on an MSF facility. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that over 600 health facilities in Yemen have closed due to damage or direct targeting caused by the conflict and shortage of critical supplies and lack of health workers.

There is a word for this kind of horrific violence against non-military targets, and that word is 'terrorism'. Perhaps of greater significance, Saudi Arabia is maintaining a naval blockade on Yemen which is severely choking imports of food, aid and fuel. Having bombed the sparse power grid back to the 19th century in many parts of the country, Saudi Arabia is now strangling supplies of the fuel that powers generators to keep hospitals and water pumps online. The net effect of the naval blockade and the targeted destruction of water distribution infrastructure and the collapse of the health system is twofold. Yemen is now suffering the largest outbreak of cholera in the world. Between April and June of this year 124,000 cases of cholera were reported and more than 920 people have died of this easily treatable disease. The outbreak is now out of control. The UN has also warned as recently as April that 17 million people are at risk of famine unless the world sends urgent humanitarian help. How this help is meant to breach the Saudi blockade is very difficult to assess. This is an engineered famine. It is an engineered epidemic. There is a word for this, too. That word is 'genocide'.

The US, the UK and Australia have been very significant state supporters of Saudi Arabia. They provide political, military, diplomatic and media cover for what the Saudi regime has been doing. As long ago as June 2015, three months after the start of the air war in Yemen, a US military spokesperson stated that the US government was helping the coalition with:

… intelligence support and intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, advisory support, and logistical support, to include aerial refueling with up to two tanker sorties a day.

In May 2016 the US acknowledged that it had deployed troops in Yemen in a combat role against al-Qaeda. It is not just the US; it is also the UK. A UK MOD statement of last year said that it was:

… providing technical support, precision-guided weapons and exchanging information with the Saudi Arabian armed forces.

The UK government is in it up to its neck as well.

The very first visit by President Donald Trump to a foreign state outside the boundaries of the United States was to Saudi Arabia. We are all obviously very well aware of the reported arms deal somewhere between $100 billion and $300 billion. I know a lot of that was confected. It was money that was re-announced that had already been committed by the Obama administration. But, nonetheless, an official at the time spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity just before President Trump's visit and said:

… the arms package could end up surpassing more than $300 billion over a decade to help Saudi Arabia boost its defensive capabilities—

I love the Orwellian use of the word 'defensive'!

while still maintaining U.S. ally Israel's qualitative military edge over its neighbors.


Why is this happening? We are meant to be part of a global war on terror. I have lost count of the number of times Australian prime ministers have stood up in front of various numbers of flags reaffirming and recommitting to this war on terror. So tell me why—when it is so well known that Saudi Arabia, particularly through its charities, is understood to be funnelling money to organisations such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State linked groups and extremists in Syria and Iraq, among others. This is an open secret. This is well documented. The US State Department said in 2015:

Despite serious and effective efforts to counter the funding of terrorism originating within the Kingdom—

referring to Saudi Arabia—

some individuals and entities in Saudi Arabia continue to serve as sources of financial support for Sunni based extremist groups, particularly regional Al Qaeda affiliates.

The State Department source went on to say:

funds are allegedly collected in secret and illicitly transferred out of the country in cash.

That is from a State Department source. Just across town in Washington the Department of Defense—and the Obama administration and then the Trump administration—are engineering gigantic military transfers of weapons and other military equipment to this very same regime. There is significant support for Islamic State in Saudi Arabia; and the group directly targets Saudi individuals, some of them quite high profile, with fundraising campaigns.

In 2009, diplomatic cables published by the WikiLeaks organisation—whose lead publisher and founder, by the way, has just been forced to celebrate his fifth anniversary under political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London—revealed the following:

Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Saudi terrorist groups worldwide.

These are US State Department cables; this is what the Department of State and the Secretary of State understood as long ago as 2009. They go on to say:

While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.

That was as long ago as 2009.

A more recent UK inquiry into the revenue streams for extremist groups operating in the UK is thought to focus on Saudi Arabia. It has repeatedly been highlighted by European leaders as a funding source for Islamist jihadists. But we do not expect to ever see that report see the light of day—because its conclusions are likely to be too sensitive to release. And the public in the UK—like the public here and, no doubt, in the United States—would be puzzled to know why we are still transferring arms and military equipment and providing other forms of support. The US, the Brits and Australia have pretensions—don't we—of being the global champions of human rights around the world. I would have thought that our support for the kingdom should be enough to shatter that self-serving myth once and for all.

The organisation Death Penalty Worldwide conducts ongoing studies into the number of executions that take place around the world. The estimates are somewhat difficult to come by, and the estimates vary, but their findings over the last couple of years are that the Saudis behead someone approximately every second day. The right hand can be cut off at the wrist as punishment for theft in Saudi Arabia. Repeat offenders can lose both hands or perhaps a leg, for some offences. Committing adultery can lead to death by stoning. Maybe we thought we left that in the Middle Ages—but it is not so. Men are buried up to their waist and women are buried up to their breast, and the stones that are hurled at people are deliberately of a size not to kill the condemned person in just a couple of strikes. Literally 'eye for an eye' sentences have been imposed in Saudi Arabia. In 2003 an Indian guest worker was punished for his role in a brawl in which a Saudi citizen was wounded. He was punished by having his right eye gouged out. This is a barbaric place.

Do you know who stood up in Saudi Arabia for human rights and democracy, unlike the United States government or indeed our own? A blogger called Raif Badawi. It is just on five years since he was arrested and sentenced to thousands of lashes and 10 years in prison. He is still in prison—a blogger. His crime was to write of his aspirations for democracy and secular rule of law in Saudi Arabia. I don't know that the Australian government has ever spoken up for him, but we do have pretensions to being a champion of human rights.

Those statements by the United States government, and the Department of Defense in particular, on the fact that the US provides intelligence support, intelligence sharing and targeted assistance for the war in Yemen, are code for facilities like Pine Gap, in the southern hemisphere. That is what it is code for. Australia is complicit, indirectly and directly, for the horrific conduct of Saudi Arabia and its allies, because this conflict, it has been said, would come to an end tomorrow if diplomatic, military and intelligence support by the United States and the United Kingdom were cut off.

That is why I brought this motion to the parliament earlier today. Leave for the motion was denied by Senator McGrath, on behalf of the government, presumably under instructions from the foreign minister and/or the Minister for Defence. As a complex foreign policy matter, what the motion called on the Australian government to do, which I would have thought was actually a very simple foreign policy matter, was to immediately suspend military exports to Saudi Arabia, to seek to ensure accountability for past and ongoing violations in Yemen and to commit additional humanitarian funds to the crisis in Yemen. I did not hear a voice from the Labor Party, so I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt. The government denied leave on the motion to be voted on. We could have had a unanimous resolution of the Senate this afternoon that we should stop pouring petrol on the horror of the war in Yemen and stop providing this unconditional and unflinching support to the regime in Saudi Arabia that has done so much damage domestically and around the world.

This is not the end of this manner. Like many others, I was horrified to discover that Mr Christopher Pyne, an Australian minister, at taxpayers' expense led at least a small number of delegations to Saudi Arabia late last year—one that we know of for certain—at the head of a collection of arms contractors, military contactors and Australian companies looking for work, probably in places like Adelaide and Perth, to try to sign up to an arms deal. I have no idea what that is likely to be. The officials whom I confronted with this information in estimates a couple of weeks back were absolutely tight-lipped, as was Senator Payne when I put it to her in the chamber a couple of weeks previously. They claim public interest immunity: 'That is commercial-in-confidence. That could damage relations between Australia and foreign governments.' That is what they say when you ask why Christopher Pyne is leading a delegation of arms dealers to Saudi Arabia to conduct these kinds of deals with this regime that has done so much harm.

If the Australian government things that this is the end of the matter you have it quite wrong. We will discover exactly what kind of defence materiel Mr Pyne was trying to traffic into Saudi Arabia. We will discover one way or another the many other ways in which the Australian government and its allies in the United States and elsewhere are complicit in the horrors that are being inflicted on a civilian population in Yemen that poses no security threat to Australia whatsoever. We are complicit. If Australia thinks that in the next year or so we can run around the world trying to marshal votes for a seat on the Human Rights Council, we need to take a good, solid look at ourselves.