The Australian government approved a large volume of weapons sales to war-torn Mali in the same year the United Nations warned escalating violence was creating an “unprecedented humanitarian disaster” in the West African nation.
Internal records released to the Guardian through freedom of information law reveal Australian weapons companies were given 31 permits last year to export weapons and military technology to a cluster of African nations suffering from instability and violence, including Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The majority of exports went to Mali, which has been gripped by near-perpetual internal conflict for eight years.
The Australian government issued 16 permits for weapons exports to Mali in 2019 alone. That same year, the UN issued dire warnings that escalating violence was creating an “unprecedented” catastrophe for civilians.
The number of Malian civilians requiring protection and assistance jumped by 700,000 to 3.9m people in 2019, the UN estimated. The war also caused the number of internally displaced civilians to grow from 80,000 to nearly 200,000 in 2019. About half of those displaced were women and children.
Just last month, the UN’s independent human rights expert on Mali, Alioune Tine, warned the multiple failures of the Mali state – in administration, justice and security – was facilitating “mass violence with impunity” in central Mali.
Civilians were being attacked by criminal organisations, terrorist groups and armed militia, who were operating without retribution in the region.
“The current violence is increasingly difficult to control and could become a major threat to the entire subregion,” he said.
Australia defends its exports by arguing every licence application is thoroughly assessed to ensure the end user will not breach human rights or other international obligations.
“This assessment includes consideration of whether there is an overriding risk that the exported items could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” a spokeswoman said last year.
But critics have slammed the government’s secrecy about who is buying the weapons, what products are being sold, and which arms manufacturers are involved.
The document released to the Guardian via freedom of information lists only the number of export permits granted, by country, for 2019.
One export permit was issued for weapons sales to Libya, where an ongoing civil war between a complex array of competing militias are fighting for control of oilfields and against the UN-backed government. The conflict has displaced an estimated 268,629 people and led to shelling in the capital Tripoli as recently as two weeks ago.
Five export permits were issued for Somalia and four were issued for Sudan, where ongoing instability and violence in the West Darfur region has caused major displacement.
Save the Children Australia chief executive Paul Ronalds said arms exports to nations like Mali and Somalia must cease immediately. He said there was an urgent need for greater accountability and transparency on Australia’s arms sales.
“We cannot let vested interests and profits take precedence over the lives of children,” Ronalds told the Guardian.
“Australians would be rightly appalled to know we were potentially prolonging devastating wars in places like Yemen and Mali, and in doing so, increasing and prolonging the suffering of millions of children.”
Oxfam Australia campaigns manager Conor Costello said the arms trade treaty, which Australia has ratified, does not allow the export of arms to places where there is a risk they could be used to commit or facilitate human rights abuses.
“Oxfam is deeply concerned by the lack of transparency and accountability in Australia’s arms export system,” Costello said. “This latest information about some of the destinations to which Australia is exporting arms raises fresh questions about how the current arms export approval processes can be consistent with our responsibilities under international law.”
Ronalds said Australia lagged behind its allies the United States, the United Kingdom and France in transparency in reporting, parliamentary oversigh, and licensing. He said those nations were top 10 defence exporters, “a status to which Australia aspires”.
“There is an urgent need for greater accountability, greater transparency and immediate answers to critical questions around Australia’s defence exports,” he said.
The Guardian has previously revealed Australian companies had been issued with almost 100 permits to export weapons and military technology to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 2018-2019 financial year.
In its FoI release, defence said it issues different types of permits to allow the export of both military and dual-use goods.
“Military items … could include items such as armour, simulators and training equipment, explosives and munitions amongst others. Military items do not necessarily indicate that the goods will be used for a military purpose, for example military export permits may include firearms to shooting competitions, explosive devices to mining operations, or retired Australian defence force vehicles to museum displays.
“Dual-use items are commercial items and technologies that are generally used for civilian purposes but may also be used or adapted for use in a military program or contribute to the development and production of chemical, biological or nuclear weapon systems. Dual-use items could include items such as chemicals for mineral processing, sensors and lasers for university research and development programs, or computers and electronics for aviation companies amongst others.”