Chemical Weapons and the Australia Group

By Sam Wollenberg, M.A. Candidate, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

The prevalence and use of chemical weapons has recently garnered significant international attention. There was the discovery of undeclared Libyan stockpiles of chemical weapons, including a sulphur mustard agent, after the fall of Muammar Gadaffi as well as the now notorious sarin gas attacks during the Syrian civil war in 2013. The U.N. declared March 6th, that the chemical weapons used in Syria most likely came from army stockpiles and were employed by individuals with the proper “expertise and equipment” needed to carry out a successful and deadly attack. Furthermore, on March 3rd, a group of Islamic militants were captured by the Libyan military in possession of a mustard agent of unknown origins, reportedly headed to the opposition forces in Syria. These events suggest complicity on both sides of the civil war in their willingness to employ chemical weapons

Thankfully, most of these incidences were met with significant international outrage and swift condemnation as well as multi-lateral collaborative efforts to dispose of the existing stockpiles as quickly and efficiently as possibleAnd, numerous international treaties such as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1975 and 1997 respectively, reveal a staunch international opposition to the possession and use of these weapons. However, these increasing instances by both state and non-state actors reveals a lingering likelihood that chemical weapons are not entirely viewed as barbaric instruments of the past and that their acquisition currently holds tactical relevancy in the growing trend of intrastate conflict.

What then can Canada contribute to the international security regime in attempt to curb the possibility of future chemical weapons attacks? The answer is: a lot. Most promising for the effectiveness of that contribution is the knowledge that Canadian governments for decades have been active in the non-proliferation of chemical weapons. Canada has acted as founding signatories on both of the aforementioned international treaties and, as a recent example, declared monetary support towards the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpile through Canada’s Global Partnership Fund to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). However, these examples allude to a more reactionary approach to chemical weapons, with the CWC largely focused on the declaration and destruction of current state stockpiles, enforced through the surprisingly capable international body of the OPCW. It is, in my opinion, Canada’s proactive involvement in the far lesser known and slightly more obscure export control regime, The Australia Group, that will help curb proliferation in the future as current chemical weapons stockpiles are continuously uncovered and destroyed. As both state and non-state actors alike find it increasingly difficult to procure pre-made chemical weapons, their production will undoubtedly shift into focus.

The Australia Group, now comprised of 42 member states, was founded in 1985 to harmonize export control measures for materials with the potential for proliferation in the form of chemical weapons. The founders of the group saw international norms surrounding chemical controls lacking in implementation and verification measures and thus created effective and confidential information sharing networks regarding chemical production and acquisitionThis allows for the civilian use of potentially dangerous and dual-use chemicals, justified through multiple verification procedures both pre and post delivery. The classified information implication of the group is what contributes to the veil of secrecy over some parts of its activities. However, this undoubtedly contributes to the efficiency with which member countries can share information and implement domestic regulation regarding chemical and technological exports with the potential for weapons proliferation.

For example, as a precaution following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the group lowered the volume level of fermenters subjected to export controls from 100 Liters to 20 Litres to deter small-scale production of chemical weapons. Recently, significant efforts have been put into restricting the sharing of intangible information that would assist knowledge seeking proliferators in the creation of chemical weapons. The Group also works actively to include academic and industry experts as well as non-member countries and by taking these appropriate measures, along with hopefully increased efforts for membership expansion in the future, the Australia Group is a significant contributor international security.

Through collaborative initiatives like the Australia Group, and long standing international treaties and customary norms, the future of chemical weapons non-proliferation appears bright. Efforts from the OPCW and CWC signatories have already drastically lowered the amount of chemical weapons available globally and their efficacy will undoubtedly be exhibited for years to come. But this forward thinking approach to chemical weapons exhibited by Australia Group, is what will limit the next round of chemical weapon proliferation and deserves far more attention and input than it currently garners.



Photo by  jgh_photo via Flickr

Categories: Uncategorized

2 replies

  1. Fantastic piece! Great to hear discussion about some of the lesser known roles of Canada, as well as practical measures for the non-proliferation chemical weapons.

  2. Thanks Marie! I thought so as well when I first came upon The Group. While it is just one aspect of the whole non-proliferation community I think it is important to shed some light on it.

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