Address to Australia Group Plenary

  • Speech, E&OE

Australia has a proud record contributing to international non-proliferation efforts so I'm very pleased to be able to mark the 30th anniversary of the Australia Group here in my home town of Perth.

While the Group carries Australia's name, in truth this is, and always has been, very much a concerted effort of international partners. The threat of chemical and biological weapons must be tackled by a joint global effort for any hope of success in preventing their proliferation and use.

Australia Group members are now working more closely with non-members. This year, for the first time, we have dialogue partners from a range of countries – a fact that highlights the broad and growing interest in the Australia Group's work and the global importance of what we seek to achieve.

We welcome dialogue partners from Myanmar, China, India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore.

In 2015, Australia, like many nations, has been commemorating tragic anniversaries of military conflict.

A century on from 1915, many nations are reflecting on the carnage and scale of loss of the First World War.

One of the most tragic of the anniversaries the world is remembering this year is the centenary of the first large scale chemical weapon attack in human history.

On 22 April 1915, chlorine gas was deployed at Ypres in Belgium – a place I visited as part of our 100 year commemoration of ANZAC just a couple of months ago. Over 1000 people died in this one attack.

In its wake, combatants on various sides of the conflict followed with other chemical weapon attacks, including the use of phosgene and mustard gas.

Over 90,000 deaths, and more than a million casualties, occurred as a result of chemical attacks during the course of the war.

The horrors wrought by chemical weapons in World War I provoked moral outrage- encapsulated in the 1925 Geneva Protocol - that, while all weapons of war are terrible, this particular type of weapon had a human impact, and a cost, that was too indiscriminate and too awful to be justified.

In spite of this chemical weapons continued to be developed, stockpiled and used.

Chemical weapons often receive less public attention than nuclear and biological threats. However, toxic chemicals were, by far, the most widely used and proliferated weapons of mass destruction in the 20th century.

A critical turning point in preventing the use of chemical weapons came in 1984.

Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons both against his own citizens as well as in combat in the Iran-Iraq war. The chemicals and materials used had been sourced through legitimate international trade channels.

In response, Australia and 14 other countries introduced export controls on chemicals that could be used to manufacture chemical weapons.

It quickly became clear that unilateral export controls were not enough.

Saddam Hussein continued to obtain chemical weapon precursors from new sources and the attacks continued.

Saddam exploited small variations in the different control lists imposed by various countries to obtain the materials and chemicals he needed.

So in 1985, as you know, at our Embassy in Brussels, Australia hosted the first meeting of what would later become known as the Australia Group.

Australia Group members across the globe started working together to deny licences for the export of chemical and biological-weapon related materials.

Thirty years on, our work does not often make headlines, but with 41 participating countries, and the European Union, the work of the Australia Group has played an important role in preventing other atrocities.

In 1993, with significant support from Australia and other countries represented here today, we agreed on the Chemical Weapons Convention - the first disarmament agreement providing for the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.

Despite ongoing efforts and real progress, we have not yet won the struggle against the ruthless and amoral individuals, organisations, and regimes that seek to develop and deploy such weapons.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has found that toxic chemicals – including sarin and chlorine – have been used as a weapon in Syria over the past four years systematically and repeatedly. As recently as March this year.

We have no doubt the Syrian regime was responsible for these attacks – violating both United Nations Security Council resolution 2118 of September 2013 and the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria acceded in October 2013.

Syria's continuing use of chemical weapons is the first documented deployment of toxic chemicals as weapons within the territory of a State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Many countries represented here, including Australia, have strongly condemned the Syrian regime's brutality towards its own citizens, and its disregard for international law.

In response to the attacks, and with wide support, the UN and the OPCW launched a mission to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. . Australia provided $2 million toward the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities - greatly reducing the massive stocks held by the Assad regime.

We also provided leadership during our Presidency of the UN Security Council when we co-sponsored UNSC resolution 2118 – an historic resolution, imposing legally-binding obligations on Syria to dismantle and destroy its chemical weapons under international supervision.

We also strongly supported UNSC resolution 2209 in March this year, which aims to hold the Syria perpetrators to account.

The fact that atrocities such as this continue to occur shows that we must remain vigilant to the threat of chemical and biological weapons. Export controls and their effective implementation are as important as ever as threats to global security, continue to evolve.

Today we face new challenges from the rise of a range of non-state actors.

Power traditionally held by governments is being challenged by a range of different actors.

The rise of global terror groups like Da'esh is one of the gravest security threats we face today.

Terrorists and extremist groups such as Da'esh reject not only the authority of existing states but also the international order itself made up of nation states.

They seek to undermine and overthrow that order – and as we have seen, are prepared to use any and all means – any and all forms of violence they can think of to advance their demented cause.

That includes use of chemical weapons.

The counter-terrorism landscape is changing so rapidly that long accepted paradigms can quickly become obsolete.

Apart from some crude and small scale endeavours, the conventional wisdom has been that the terrorist intention to acquire and weaponise chemical agents has been largely aspirational.

The use of chlorine by Da'esh, and its recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the West, have revealed far more serious efforts in chemical weapons development.

Da'esh is likely to have amongst its tens of thousands of recruits the technical expertise necessary to further refine precursor materials and build chemical weapons.

In 2014, acknowledging the evolving security threat, Australia Group members agreed to take the risk of diversion to non-state actors into account in their licensing decisions.

The Plenary this week has looked at the potential for chemical terrorism and worked on challenging new issues such as curbing the spread of weapons technology on the internet and other means and the requirement for continuing adjustment of policies and regulations to take account of new technologies.

Ladies and gentlemen, thirty years on, the work of the Australia Group is arguably more important and relevant as when the group was formed in 1985.

The Australia Group has shown the ability to anticipate and respond to emerging issues.

This includes the threat of terrorism and knowledge transfer that could contribute to the use of a chemical or biological weapon.

In our age of globalisation – an age where, every day, we enjoy the benefits of unprecedented ease of communication, travel and movement of goods, services and capital, we must remain mindful that the free flow of information and movement also presents challenges to security.

The work of the Australia Group is highly technical, and often difficult.

Updating control lists, training customs officials, working to improve legislation, coordinating outreach efforts – none of this generally attracts much public attention.

However, the experts in this room, and those back in your capitals, aren't doing this work for public acknowledgement.

It is done because it matters – the determination and professionalism by which these tasks are achieved.

This work has important implications – preventing the use of chemical weapons in mass killings in warzones or in communities around the world.

The work of the Australia group is vitally important in safeguarding human life. There is no more important responsibility.

Thank you for travelling to Perth for this year's plenary and for marking the 30th anniversary of this group - because of whom our world is a better place.

- Ends –

Media enquiries