Australia Group opinion piece

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Three days before the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli 100 years ago, the world’s first large-scale attack with chemical weapons occurred at Ypres in Belgium. By the end of World War I, these deadly weapons had led to the deaths of over 90,000 people, and caused over one million casualties.

Since then, chemical and biological weapons have been used in many conflicts, including World War II, the Iran-Iraq War and in Syria causing sickening deaths and injuries. 

In recent decades, Australia has been at the forefront of preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Australia Group – an international grouping of 42 countries committed to harmonising export controls to prevent rogue states and terrorists from obtaining what they need to build chemical and biological weapons.  

Australia was instrumental in helping to form the Group after the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein’s regime had shopped around different countries to source the material for these weapons, including mustard gas and tear gas, which killed 21,000 soldiers and civilians. The attack in 1988 on the Kurdish town of Halabja killed over 6,000 civilians.  

This week Perth is hosting delegates representing member countries of the Australia Group for its 30th anniversary plenary to discuss new ways to curb the spread of chemical and biological weapons. 

My address to the Australia Group meeting will highlight Australia’s leadership in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and our commitment to building on this work.

Tragically, atrocities still occur. Most recently, toxic chemicals have been used systematically and repeatedly during Syria’s civil war. Last August rockets containing sarin, which is 20 times more deadly than cyanide, were fired at Damascus suburbs. Chlorine – which reacts with water in the lungs to form potentially lethal hydrochloric acid – has been used in barrel bombs against towns in northern Syria.  

Australia has provided $2 million toward the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities, which has greatly reduced the massive stocks held by the Assad regime.

The devastating humanitarian impact of such weapons shows why the Australia Group’s work, through arms control experts, customs agencies and scientists, is so important.

To succeed in controlling the spread of these terrible weapons, we need the help of all countries. That’s why Australia Group members are working closely with non-members, including those in our region. We have invited 11 countries to participate in a dialogue with Australia Group members in Perth through which we will share best practices and talk about how to strengthen our efforts at preventing the spread and use of these weapons.

This meeting will work on some challenging new issues. We are working to curb the spread of weapons technology by email and other intangible means. We are adjusting our policies and regulations to reflect constantly-evolving new technologies. And we are working on the vital task of preventing terrorist groups from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.  

Preventing the spread of chemical and biological weapons is vital to saving innocent lives, and maintaining international peace and security. That is why the Australia Group, and our counter-proliferation efforts more broadly, are so important.

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