Subregional Forum on CWC National Implementation
Thank you. I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands around Brisbane, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
Thank you for coming to the conference here in Brisbane this week, particularly His Excellency Fernando Arias, the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Fernando, I know Foreign Minister Wong was very glad that you were able to accept her invitation to come to Australia this week.
Australia and the OPCW
Australia was an original signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 and among the first nations to ratify it.
We’re very proud of our commitment to the mission of the OPCW over the 25 years of its history to date.
And we’re proud of our active work over the years towards the goal of universal adherence.
The CWC has achieved near universal acceptance, with 193 members - as many signatories as the United Nations.
Here in our own neighbourhood, all countries across the South Pacific and across South-East Asia are now states parties.
Real progress is being made to build capacity across the region to help with CWC implementation
And your visit here, Director-General, underscores both Australia’s long term national commitment to the prohibition of chemical weapons, and points to the continuing importance of this work here in the Indo-Pacific in the years ahead.
The power of multilateralism
What we would think of as modern chemical weapons, with the capacity to cause mass casualties, have been with us for a century, now, since they were first deployed in World War One.
For all the horrors of that conflict – and there were many – the deployment of chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas seared the particular evil of chemical weapons into the global consciousness for the first time in history.
It’s not surprising that shortly thereafter, Geneva Protocol was agreed - one of the first major achievements of international law.
Signed in 1925, under the auspices of the League of Nations, the Protocol was negotiated in the shadow of the horrors of World War One.
The Protocol, building on the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, explicitly prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in armed conflict – a vital step forward for the post-war rules-based order.
Australia acceded to the Protocol shortly after its entry into force, in 1930.
The text of the Protocol noted that this prohibition of chemical and biological weapons should:
“be universally accepted as a part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations.”
And that imperative still holds today.
The success of the Chemical Weapons Convention is in many ways part of the Geneva Protocol’s modern legacy.
These achievements are hard won outcomes of our multilateral system.
That’s one reason why, under the Albanese Government, Australia has committed increased resources to multilateral engagement.
As our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, said to the UN General Assembly recently, ‘we can only solve our biggest problems together.’
‘To avoid conflict, we must talk to each other – and we must listen to each other.’
Talking to each other, and listening to each other, in order to avoid conflict and tragedy – this is the kind of ongoing work that all of you present here today know well.
Where are we now?
Nearly a century after the Geneva Protocol was signed, the fight to protect the world against chemical weapons has rarely been more important.
Day by day, even as the health and economic impacts of the pandemic continue to affect us, we are confronted with deeper challenges to global security and the international order.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an appalling crime that has cost many, many Ukrainian lives.
Our Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has made clear that Australia stands with the people and government of Ukraine in demanding President Putin end this crude and pointless war.
As the war has continued, President Putin has been prepared to offend critical international norms that have kept us safe over many decades.
Months ago, he brought the fighting to the edge of nuclear sites in Ukraine, raising the spectre of accidental nuclear explosion and contamination.
And in recent weeks, he also threatened to use nuclear weapons – a truly extreme suggestion, corrosive of long-standing nuclear norms – and norms of international behaviour that have stood for nearly 80 years.
So, in 2022 we find ourselves, as a global community, rightly worried about how best we preserve our international order.
And about how we can best protect the critical norms of international behaviour that have done so much to protect us from harm.
The prohibition on chemical weapons is a key plank of that global security infrastructure.
Despite the CWC’s widespread acceptance, we have still seen the use of chemical weapons by malign actors in recent years all over the world.
In Syria, we know that both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the terrorist group ISIL used chemical weapons: chlorine, sarin and sulphur mustard, killing thousands of civilians.
And we’ve seen attacks in different parts of the world – in Salisbury, in the United Kingdom, and in Malaysia in 2017 – where malign actors have used chemical weapons to murder people outside of their own territory and outside of active conflict.
So even outside countries with chemical industries or active conflict, the CWC remains highly relevant.
It also has a key role to play in regulating and safely and securely managing imports and exports.
The fact is: our world is so complex, so competitive, and under such geopolitical strain, that we have to continue to develop the best protections we can muster to keep our people safe from chemical weapons.
Partnerships for progress
Nowhere is completely untouched by this challenge.
In the Pacific, we know that some countries face the challenge of dealing with legacy chemical weapons from the Second World War.
These are still posing risks to families and communities today.
Australia recognises the unique expertise and role the OPCW plays, and the critical part that national governments have to deliver.
This can be a complex domain.
Which is why we are such strong supporter of regional networks and collaboration in this area.
Australia has a number of programs under which we are keen to work with Pacific Island partners in support of the aims of the CWC.
We want to build up the network of states working on these issues across the Pacific, which hopefully can help a number of Pacific Island countries access the expertise they need to help keep their parts of the Pacific free from the horror of chemical weapons.
It’s no accident that we’re holding this convention in Brisbane, which is a major gateway to the Pacific - a huge trading zone whose importance will only grow in the decades ahead.
And last August Australia was very happy to be invited to work with Malaysia through the OPCW’s formal partnership program.
Thankfully, the corner of the Indo-Pacific that Australia and Malaysia share is not one with a recent history of conflict.
But the sea lanes through Southeast Asian waters are some of the most heavily trafficked and congested in the world – so in a highly integrated global economy, there are some risks of chemical weapon proliferation.
So, we have been very keen to work with our Malaysian partners.
That collaboration started this year in March.
With Malaysia, we are sharing knowledge, skills and our own experience as Malaysia works to enhance its own national systems to implement its obligations under the CWC – and we’re determined to continue this collaboration into 2023 and beyond.
The work of the OPCW has been highly effective and critically important – building consensus against the use of chemical weapons and destroying nearly 99 per cent of the world’s declared stockpiles.
There is much to celebrate, and reflect on with pride, as we look back on the past 25 years of effort.
And as we look to the challenges of the decade ahead, it is critical that we continue to lift our efforts to prevent the development, use and spread of chemical weapons and their precursors.
So, thank you all again for coming this week for this important conference – I'm looking forward to discussing these issues with you.
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