Monday, 13 August 2018
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Defence, Minister Payne. Minister, on 9 August an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition on a market area in the northern Yemen city of Saada hit a school bus. It is reported that 50 children were killed. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, immediately condemned the air strike and the fact that children were casualties, supported by aid groups on the ground. Minister, your government has already quadrupled weapons sales licences to the Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia and you harbour ambitions for Australia to become one of the top 10 global arms dealers. Is this why your government has been silent on this attack or will you take this opportunity now to condemn this attack?
As we have indicated in previous comments on this matter and on the conflict in Yemen itself, we've called on all the parties to the conflict to continue to work with the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Yemen, Mr Martin Griffiths, to reach a political solution to this conflict. We have made representations to the parties in the conflict via Australian officials in terms of the importance of allowing unhindered access for humanitarian support and particularly the need to respect international humanitarian law. That would go to an event such as the one to which Senator Whish-Wilson refers.
In relation to Senator Whish-Wilson's raising of the Defence Export Strategy, I need to reiterate to the chamber, as I have done before and in the estimates context, that the Defence Export Strategy does not include any changes to Australia's defence export control provisions. The Defence Export Controls Branch is, and will remain, separate and independent from the new Australian Defence Export Office. The criteria, the considerations, that all export applications are subject to have not been changed. They include the assessment of export applications against five criteria: Australia's international obligations, human rights, regional security, national security and foreign policy. The assessment of export applications is done on a case-by-case basis, looking at the end use, the end user and technology that is being exported. Those export applications are considered by Defence subject to that assessment process, including the assessment processes of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, my own department and appropriate intelligence organisations. As I said, it includes consultation across government to ensure all of those criteria are considered.
We know that the Australian military has previously conducted training exercises with the Saudi-led coalition around their blockade of Yemen and we know that Australia sold military hardware to the Wahhabi regime. Given the assessments you just outlined are top secret, how can you rule out that any arms exports of defence technology to Saudi Arabia or one of its allies in their war in Yemen were not used to assist in carrying out the air strike on 9 August on innocent children?
I need to draw to the attention of the chamber yet again—because I did this on a previous occasion when Senator Whish-Wilson chose to misrepresent our engagement as part of the command maritime force in the Middle East with other countries, including Saudi Arabia, as an exercise activity—that, indeed, it is important for vessels that are working together in a combined maritime force to engage in familiarisation processes to ensure that they are able to deal with emergencies and are able to deal with crises in a ready manner and have some familiarity with each other's activities. That was the purpose, as I said, of the opportunity taken at the time of the vessels being in the same place at the same time.
I've been through the process by which military exports, defence exports, are considered. The reflection of our international obligations, including the Arms Trade Treaty, the assessment against those international obligations, human rights, national security, regional security and foreign policy questions are brought to bear in all of those considerations. (Time expired)
I suppose I'll have to take your word on our arms sales to one of the worst abusers of human rights in the world. The Wahhabi regime severely restricts freedom of expression, association and assembly, and torture of political prisoners is commonplace. Minister, what will it take for your government to join Germany, Norway and Belgium and suspend arms sales and any joint military operations or exercises with parties fighting in Yemen? How many more school buses need to be bombed by these extremists before you act?
I think it is also important to note that Australia regularly raises human rights matters with the Saudi government. We've raised them with Saudi ministers through our embassy in Riyadh and to Saudi Arabian diplomats here in Canberra. Minister Bishop raised the issue of women's rights and activists in a meeting—I think a matter to which Senator Whish-Wilson referred—with her Saudi counterpart, the foreign minister Al-Jubeir, in their meeting at the G20 in Argentina just recently. We are very strongly committed to working with the international community to advance those human rights across the world. That is one of the reasons why we worked so hard to become a member of the Human Rights Council: to work with a range of countries to end violence—for example, against women and girls—to support their economic empowerment—and those sorts of concerns that Senator Whish-Wilson has raised.
I've outlined the approach that Australia takes in relation to defence exports both broadly and specifically in relation to Saudi Arabia. I have no more to add on that matter. But Senator Whish-Wilson did also raise other human rights issues, and the rest of my answer went to that point.