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Australia's arms boost is morally indefensible



Brazen in their desire to become one of the world's top ten arms exporters, the government has once again pledged billions to grow an industry tainted by the spectre of needless death.

Malcolm Turnbull inspects armsSome are quick to condemn the recently announced $3.8b fund to boost the foreign sale of arms as the act of 'warlords', but the arguments against both the proliferation and distribution of arms and defence technology are more nuanced. The issue at hand beckons closer questioning, such as what arms do we export; to whom do we export arms, and why?

Australia is still a very small fish in the world of global arms — ranked 20th in terms of arms exports, with a 0.3 per cent share of the global market. We are not the creators of large weapons of mass destruction, like missiles and bombs. Our manufacturing largely produces equipment and infrastructure ancillary to conflicts — armoured vehicles, parts of aircrafts, ship-fixing technology and high-tech defence systems.

People find it hard to envisage the devastating and warmongering effects of such exports, but a shadow is cast on all of this industrial output when we consider to whom Australia exports its arms.

Australia proudly displays its defence export agreements with democracies like the US, India, the UK and New Zealand. Yet the wars fought by these countries in recent times, like the almost half-decade conflict in Syria, have seen an unbelievable number of civilian casualties. The Syrian Network for Human Rights found that in early 2017, more civilian deaths had been caused at the hands of the US-led coalition than either the Islamic State or Russian forces.

Further, an SMH report last year detailed some of Australia's murky arms dealings with Saudi Arabia — despite the consistent public condemnation of Saudi's actions in bombing the north of Yemen.

Politicians like Christopher Pyne state that Australia has processes in place to make sure we sell arms to the right countries and people, but this process is largely obfuscated. When asked for more information surrounding our exports to Saudi Arabia, former Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was met with the government's familiar sting of 'commercial confidentiality' and 'public interest immunity'. This is echoed by the Department of Defence's line: 'Defence does not release the details of export approvals due to commercial-in-confidence restrictions.'


"The world no longer lives in a Cold War environment, yet our government is still devoid of a conscience regarding the morality of arms proliferation."


The Australian public is faced with wall after wall preventing the disclosure of which countries or private parties we sell arms to, or who gets what. However, even if Saudi Arabia's internationally-criticised actions were deemed legally permissible, and we continued to sell them weapons, what happens to Australia's moral credibility as a promoter of liberal democracy and the rule of law? Why is Australia willing to sacrifice its moral stature and sanction the growth of global arms?

The Turnbull government continues its campaign mantra of jobs and growth as a justification for this large investment in the arms industries. The ALP supported the creation of more jobs, but rightly questioned why these jobs couldn't be created in parallel high tech industries like electric car manufacturing or renewable energy — industries that have a greater net benefit to all Australians.

The Stockholm International of Peace Research Institute's 2016 annual report rationalised Australia's position in the global arms trade as a reflection of our desire to counter the perceived threat from China. Yet, in the past months the Coalition is yet to reach any consensus about whether they do consider China a threat, with mixed messages coming from the Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce and the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Beyond the politics, this is above all an ethical issue. Pope John XXIII in his 1963 encyclical Pacem In Terris, declared 'hence justice, right reason and the recognition of man's dignity cry insistently for a cessation to the arms race'. Fifty-five years later, the world no longer lives in a Cold War environment, yet our government is still devoid of a conscience regarding the morality of arms proliferation. Surely the desire to increase our defence exports by over 700 per cent to enter the world's top ten arms distributers echoes a severe lack of understanding surrounding the devastation and morally indefensible nature of selling arms.

Countries of the world need to protect themselves, but when the manufacturing and distribution of arms becomes an industry on which you build a campaign promise to deliver better economic growth, something is surely wrong. When Australia's arms sales reach the shores of countries and parties with histories of human rights abuses and blunders, the growth or even existence of a defence exports industry must be heavily questioned.



Noah VazNoah Vaz is studying a bachelor of arts (media and communications) and bachelor of laws at the University of Sydney, majoring in Chinese studies. He is editor of the University of Sydney Union's PULP Media, and has a keen interest in international relations and domestic politics. Follow him on Twitter @noahvaz

Topic tags: Noah Vaz, Malcolm Turnbull, arms exports



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Existing comments

Well said, Noah. It is high time this issue of increasing our arms export became part of public discussion that properly informs people and puts the issue in the context of our Social and ethical responsibilities as a nation.

Corrie van den Bosch | 14 February 2018  

During WW2, many of my relatives and friends defended this country and their loved ones, and some of them lost their lives. They used arms, most of which came from England or USA. It was never suggested by the church that it was morally indefensible for us to buy these arms, or for the other countries to sell them to us.

Jenny | 14 February 2018  

Thank you for this article. The issue is deeply troubling, particularly when warfare has changed to the extent that 90% of war deaths are now civilians, not soldiery.

Susan Connelly | 14 February 2018  

Thanks Noah! Yes, "The world no longer lives in a Cold War environment, yet our government is still devoid of a conscience regarding the morality of arms proliferation." And our government is also devoid of a conscience in so many areas, including: - its cruel unconscionable treatment of asylum seekers - it reductions in overseas aid - its support for negative gearing of rental property, giving tax advantages to the rich - its policies that keep widening the gap between the rich and poor in this country - its acceptance of huge donations from the fossil fuel industry and its pathetic response to the climate crisis - its non-acceptance of the 'ULURU statement' of our indigenous people - its pathetic 'jobs and growth' mantra, as a substitute for decent policies - its proposed huge tax cuts for large corporations - its inability to reign in the national deficit

Grant Allen | 14 February 2018  

Good one Noah. Australia's defence cooperation with the Soeharto regime in Indonesia during its occupation of East Timor is a good case study in support of your thesis. Canberra used the 'ancillary' argument and claims that its training of the Indonesian military would mitigate human rights violations in East Timor but the military took both to mean Australia was on its side, not that of its victims. Australia's military did play a positive peace-keeping role in 1999 and thereafter but that cannot be used to justify arms exports.

Pat Walsh | 14 February 2018  

There is a lot of modern Australian "virtue-signalling" here. The moral defence is neatly given in your lst paragraph Noah: "Countries of the world need to protect themselves". There is a new big but luke-warm war going with a militant Russia and slightly more subtle China trying it on with the Western Democracies (Crimea, East Ukraine, potentially Baltic states, and island creation and militarism in S China sea for examples). there is much hotter war with militant Wahhabism. Australia is a number of alliances in response to these real threats to our well-being. We need arms to defend ourselves, and whether we buy them all from alliance partner or make some of them in export exchange seems to be moral hair-splitting. The latter approach would certainly be better for our economic and employment health, especially if we have unique technology to develop and share with our friends.

Eugene | 14 February 2018  

This is a very thought-provoking article. I certainly would not want arms or military equipment being sent to countries that have a history of war mongering eg Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Israel, the US and many of its allies. I don't consider myself as a pacifist, but believe that we should be as pacifist as we can to work for a peaceful and less threatening world. Some people working for peace these days have a concept of armed neutrality. Nations like Sweden remain neutral and don't enter wars, but have armed forces to deter would be invaders. They manufacture their own military equipment. In addition, their military personnel participate in UN peace keeping exercises. Since WW2, Australia's alliance with the US has seen young Australians being dragged off to many wars that could not be considered to be "just wars" or we our leaders have adopted US policies to support repressive regimes. If Australia became an independent and non-aligned nation, some people argue that we would not be involved in "unjust wars", we could manufacture our own military equipment to provide jobs for Australians. There would need to be greater openness and control over which countries we sold arms to. The sale of armaments to all and sundry just to make profits is not morally defensible.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 14 February 2018  

I agree with Andy here, in his views on pacifism and unjust wars that Australia has been involved in. However I must question the wisdom of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, a country has a history of Human Rights violations against women and well known for supporting violent Islamic organisations such as ISIS. In fact, why aren't they a political pariah?

Evan | 23 February 2018  

I was dismayed to hear the Prime Minister commit to this. But now it makes sense - all the ads for the death dealers appearing in airports and media. I can't believe we would wilfully commit to producing tens of thousands more refugees, when the same government won't take responsibility for these end-products of the arms trade. Noah - a great point about "commercial in confidence" - and what about the arms industry corruption of government ministers and staffs, around the world - soon to be here too.

Jim Monaghan | 24 February 2018  

Hi Evan, Thanks for your comment about mine. With respect, I think you may have misunderstood my comment about Saudi Arabia. I included Saudi Arabia in the examples of countries that should NOT have Australian military hardware sold to it. It is a very repugnant, undemocratic, women hating and controlling theocracy that pours millions into supporting ISIS and other terrorist organisations that have been responsible for many deaths, much human suffering and widespread destruction. It is Saudi money that has helped the dark forces invading Syria. I think we are on the same page.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 15 March 2018  

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