Dealing in death
In September, the federal parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade reported on the implications of Australian arms exports. While the majority opinion somewhat predictably emphasised monitoring, a minority report was prepared by the Greens (WA), Democrats and Labor left members.
The minority noted that these arms sales are "frequently counter to the goals of international security, international harmony, peace making and the protection of human rights ... Australia's current practice in regard to these exports is a cause for shame.
"When we support the Indonesian military, we support the political repression of the people of East Timor, Aceh and West Papua, and the repression of unions and critics of the government, and the repression of the press and the use of military power and loyalty to keep General Soeharto in control."
While some controls exist on the sale of lethal military hardware, based on who the Australian government considers an enemy at any particular time, there are no controls over "non-lethal" hardware such as handcuffs, tear gas, batons and torture aids such as sodium pentothal.
The repressive governments of Indonesia, Thailand and Burma are all customers. Geoffrey Barker of the Financial Review articulated the establishment's view in an October article: in arms sales, as in other areas of trade, human rights can only be a part of the total calculation.
At last year's Defence Procurement and Export Opportunities conference in Sydney, promotional material boasted: "Australia's defence expenditure put us 17th of the top 20 nations in defence spending. With a yearly budget reaching almost $10 billion, defence still provides major new procurement opportunities ..."
The government's encouragement of the export of arms as part of its policy of "defence self-reliance" finds support from Victorian left convener Kim Carr. He argues in a briefing paper in favour of the domestic arms industry on the grounds that it creates jobs and maintains industry development. Perhaps the good senator could use his parliamentary resources to calculate how many Australian jobs are created for each death facilitated by the arms industry.
Perhaps he can begin with Bougainville. The Australian government has provided PNG with over $500 million worth of weapons and military training since 1975. This military hardware has helped to cause the death of 5000 Bougainvilleans during the six years since arms export constraints were lifted by the Labor government.
The APEC conference in Jakarta was trumpeted by Paul Keating as a monumental success. By the year 2020 Australian government and private industry will have unfettered access to Asia for their death-dealing trade. What a triumph for humanity. And human rights? Yes, well, they got a mention in Jakarta. Gareth Evans apologised to Thailand's generals for raising the issue.