TODAY |

Top official promises NZ military exports not used in Yemen battlefield

New Zealand's involvement in sending military equipment to the Saudi-led coalition, while it was on a UN blacklist for killing children, was at the centre of tense questioning in Parliament today.

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They told MPs today that they’re upholding New Zealand’s reputation, and argued they’re actually helping protect civilians. Source: 1 NEWS

by Benedict Collins and Anna Whyte

It comes as Government Ministers "have made it clear" to ministry officials that military equipment should not be sold to parts of the Middle East at the moment.

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MFAT chief executive Ben King sat down for a one-on-one interview with 1 NEWS’ Benedict Collins, who has helped lift the lid on the export of NZ products to foreign militaries. Source: 1 NEWS

Foreign Affair's (MFAT) deputy chief executive Ben King faced questions over the ministry's decision to approve permits to export military equipment to Saudi Arabia and other nations involved in the conflict in recent years when they were on the blacklist for their actions in Yemen.

Approved military equipment to the Saudi-led coalition nations included mortar fire control systems, artillery fire control systems and firearms suppressors. 

Green Party's Golriz Ghahraman asked King, "When MFAT continued to sell to the Saudi military during which time that military was on a UN blacklist for killing and maiming children, that didn't meet your standard?"

King said they "take our responsibilities here very seriously".

"Against the criteria we look at the particular equipment and we also take account of New Zealand's reputation. On the strength of the information we had at the time, we were satisfied."

When pushed on the inclusion of those countries on the UN blacklist, King said they were "absolutely determined to get the highest level we could that this equipment would not be deployed into Yemen".

Ghahraman asked, "So, we have a military force that you know is very likely to be committing very serious war crimes, you're saying it's OK to help train them? That's the MFAT standard?"

Yemen streets after bomb Source: Associated Press

"No it's absolutely not," King said.
 
On the issue of sending fire control training equipment for artillery to the UAE, King said they had confidence that it would be highly unlikely to be deployed in Yemen, after checking with the exporter, the end user and they also had the New Zealand embassy involved.

"Training people to become better at war crimes is OK?" Ghahraman asked.

"Absolutely not," King said.

"We were confident this equipment would not be deployed in Yemen in any way.

"We do have diplomatic relations with the UAE, we do have a military defence relationship. If there was any suggestion that this equipment could in way be deployed in Yemen, we would not have approved it."

Talking to 1 NEWS, King said that Government ministers "have made it clear that they would not expect military equipment to be sold to some parts of the Middle East at the moment".

"That is a situation that has evolved. Decisions made in 2016 were made on the basis of the information we had at hand at the time."  

King said the inclusion of countries on the UN blacklist "is a factor we take into consideration" when it comes to approving export control orders.

"This particular technology was used for training... We were confident that selling training equipment to help militaries to understand their work was something we were able to do."

He said the assessment process MFAT undertakes was "based on the information we have".

"We've been absolutely clear to determine we are confident that it is highly unlikely that any of that equipment would be deployed or could be deployed in the Yemen situation.

"In the case of the Saudi mortar fire control systems, that was sent to the Saudi marines, they had been involved in the UN sanctioned breaking the blockade of the port and ensuring humanitarian aid was delivered."

However, in 2017 the Human Rights Watch accused Saudi forces of worsening the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen after stopping food and medicine getting through to the country by conducting a blockade of the ports. 

King continued, saying they "saw no evidence whatsoever [the Saudi Marines] were involved in the ground operations and actually the Saudi's main offences were done through the air".

On New Zealand's reputation in regard to allowing military equipment to be sent to blacklisted countries, King said it was a "highly dynamic situation".

"In 2015 New Zealand was part of the security council that had a resolution which actually authorised the Government of Yemen to invite the Saudi coalition in to defend their situation against the Houthis. We had to take all that information into account and our role is to integrate all the information to make decisions based on that particular export permit as to whether or not it should go ahead."

The UN blacklist for killing and maiming children in war does not come with sanctions, but operates as an international means of naming and shaming.

Human rights watchdogs say responsible countries should not sell arms to nations on the blacklist. 

The Saudi-led coalition was removed from the blacklist last year, but was subjected to a year of monitoring.