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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 34, February 1999

Speech by Australian Foreign Minister

Speech by Australian Foreign Minister

'Asia-Pacific Approaches to Disarmament, The Peaceful Settlement of Disputes, and International Humanitarian Law,' Keynote speech by the Hon Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the Commemoration of the Centenary of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference, University of Melbourne, 18 February 1999


... This conference is a commemoration not just of a noble event - the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899 - but a noble idea. The notion that by sitting down together, by discussing, by debating, by setting ourselves worthy - and realisable - objectives, we can indeed improve the lot of the world as it enters the new millennium.

In the lead-up to the first Conference in 1899, its chief architect, the Russian Foreign Minister Count Mikhail Mouravieff, thought that such a meeting could augur well for the coming century. He hoped that 'it would unite into one mighty whole the efforts of all States sincerely striving to make the great idea of universal peace triumph over strife and discord'.

Two World Wars, and countless regional conflicts later, some may say that his hopes for the 20th century at least were well and truly dashed. But it is not a zero sum equation. This century has seen progress toward goals set by Mouravieff and his colleagues - disarmament, the peaceful settlement of dispute and the prevention of conflict, and the strengthening of international humanitarian law.

Of course much work remains to be done. Within our own Asia-Pacific region we are constantly reminded that we live in a complex and uncertain part of the world - made potentially more uncertain by the region's recent economic upheaval. What I therefore would like to do today is not just talk about what has been achieved, but what still needs to be done, and what Australia is doing to contribute to the ambitions of Mouravieff and his colleagues for a more stable and more secure world.

Disarmament and Arms Control

Disarmament was, naturally enough, a priority for that first Hague Conference. It was realized even then that eliminating violence as a method of settling disputes would, at the very least, require some reduction in armaments.

In today's nuclear world the stakes are that much higher, the need for disarmament and arms control that much greater. In 1968 the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons proposed eliminating the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a legitimate option for assuring national security. A fanciful idea at the time perhaps, but today it is a norm to which all five nuclear-weapon States and 182 non-nuclear-weapon States subscribe.

The far-sighted decision in 1995 to extend the NPT indefinitely means that it is now a permanent tenet of international law. But no Treaty is secure simply by virtue of its legal permanence. That is why Australia devotes a significant part of its national foreign policy resources to the care and maintenance of international arms control agreements. That is why Australia will be working hard for a successful NPT Review in the year 2000 to ensure commitments to the principles enshrined in that Treaty are reaffirmed.

Nuclear Disarmament

If we needed any reminder about the importance of the Treaty, last year's South Asian nuclear tests certainly provided it. There is now a real need to repair the damage done to the international non-proliferation regime.

Australia has been criticised by some for its supposed 'overreaction' to the South Asian tests. Some have accused us of trying to help perpetuate the great power nuclear monopoly - of not wanting further non-western members to join the nuclear club.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The stand we have taken on South Asian tests is a principled one. If we have perhaps seemed to call more urgently for restraint than others it is because these tests took place on our very doorstep. And we certainly are not protecting any nuclear monopoly.

Let me be quite clear about the Australian Government's position on this last issue. The Government is fully committed to the twin goals enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and working through progressive balanced steps towards complete nuclear disarmament.

But calls for a multilateral nuclear disarmament process are misguided in current circumstances. As I said at the Conference on Disarmament last year, would it help, as some appear to be proposing, to bring the START process into the CD and subject it to preordained timetables and negotiation by 60 countries instead of two? Would that accelerate the business of getting rid of actual nuclear weapons?

Indeed nuclear disarmament has been taking place at an impressive rate since the end of the Cold War. In addition to unilateral nuclear reductions by France and the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia have already more than halved their holdings of strategic nuclear weapons this decade. START III, the guidelines for which were agreed in March 1997, would bring those same arsenals down to some 80 percent below Cold War peaks.

There are many steps to be taken on the road to the goal of nuclear disarmament before the question of a single nuclear weapons convention can be productively addressed. The Australian Government does not favour the concept, advocated by some, of a timebound framework for nuclear disarmament, nor does the Government share the views of the 'New Agenda' coalition that a radical new approach to nuclear disarmament - exactly what new approach is not all that clear - is warranted by the current state of the nuclear disarmament process.

Whereas a multilaterally negotiated legal instrument may well be a focus of the final phases of the elimination of nuclear weapons, it is more productive in present circumstances to continue to encourage the nuclear-weapon States to maintain the momentum of nuclear arsenal reductions, notably under the START process.


This does not mean however that the rest of the international community is condemned to inaction. The Canberra Commission identified two genuinely multilateral endeavours which will contribute to the elimination of nuclear weapons - the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

The CTBT has been long fought for by Australia and others in our region, the only region of the world in which all five nuclear-weapon States have tested. During its negotiation Australia contributed two model texts and indeed snatched it from untimely death in the Conference on Disarmament by - if I do say so myself - a daring and imaginative feat of Australian diplomacy.

But we still face many challenges in making the treaty truly effective. The CTBT's normative value has been profoundly challenged by the nuclear tests in South Asia. The conditions required for its entry into force have not yet been met. And the vital task of building up the Treaty's institutional fabric and verification machinery has slipped off the world's political and budgetary radar screens.

All of these challenges must be addressed if the disarmament and non-proliferation achievements of the CTBT are to be consolidated and assured. At CTBT headquarters in Vienna, Australia has made a positive pain of itself on these issues - and I make no apologies for saying we will continue to do so.

The next cab off the multilateral nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation rank is the FMCT, the negotiation of which is - we all hope - about to get underway in Geneva.

It will be a difficult negotiation and a challenging treaty to implement effectively. But the effort will be worth it. Why? Because an FMCT will be another nail in the coffin of the nuclear arms race and the vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons. It will require the nuclear-weapons States to make good their NPT commitment to pursue negotiations related to the cessation of the nuclear arms race. It will also cap the production of fissile material by other nuclear-capable States. And a fissile material cut-off treaty is a central and indispensable element in any verification regime for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Chemical Weapons

While the first Hague Conference pre-dated the advent of nuclear weapons, it did anticipate the dangers inherent in what it called 'poison or poisoned weapons.' From the 1,300,000 poison gas casualties in World War I to Iraq's use of chemical weapons on its own citizens this is a scourge that we have unfortunately come to know very well this century.

With the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in April 1997, there is now hope, however, that this scourge will one day be eliminated. The CWC has a unique status amongst arms control and disarmament regimes as the first verifiable multilateral treaty that completely bans an entire class of weapons. It is a treaty we of course understand well. Australia played an instrumental role in bringing negotiations on the Convention to a conclusion through the introduction of a compromise text and have been active ever since in seeking to promote widespread and full compliance with its provisions.

Looking towards the future, there are good grounds for optimism that the effectiveness of the Convention will continue to increase. But vigilance will need to be maintained if we are to ultimately achieve a world free of chemical weapons.

Biological Weapons

There is perhaps no better reminder of the challenges to effective disarmament and arms control created by a changing global security balance and rapidly advancing technology than the Biological Weapons Convention. Concluded in 1972, at the height of the Cold War, the BWC was the first major multilateral WMD disarmament treaty. But advances in biotechnology, making it cheaper and easier to develop, produce and conceal biological weapons, have revealed the treaty's fundamental flaw - the lack of a verification mechanism.

The international community has responded to this deficiency by negotiating a protocol to the BWC that would provide a credible and effective verification mechanism. Australia is taking a leading role in these negotiations, which must address complex technical issues, accommodate future advances in biotechnology, and find a delicate balance between effective verification and the need to avoid hampering or interfering with the legitimate biotechnology industry.

Australia is pursuing an initiative to accelerate the negotiations and we convened an informal ministerial meeting last September in New York to inject greater political impetus into the process. We are following this up with a high level meeting later in the year. The Government's initiative also has a domestic angle, and I am pleased to announce today the establishment of a National Consultative Group of biotechnology industry representatives, academics and other interested parties to provide input to our negotiating strategy.

Anti-Personnel Landmines

I cannot conclude this review of attempts by the descendants of the 1899 Hague pioneers to grapple with challenge of arms control and disarmament without a mention of landmines. Australia has been active in taking up the fight against landmines, and is determined to achieve a comprehensive and lasting solution to the global landmines problem. On 14 January this year Australia ratified the Ottawa landmines ban Convention.

We are also pursuing complementary international strategies to strengthen the global regime against landmines including: to encourage broader adherence to revised Protocol II on landmines of the Inhumane Weapons Convention; and to continue to lead efforts in the Conference on Disarmament for a universal ban on landmines transfers. In particular we are seeking the reappointment of Australia's Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament as the special coordinator on landmines. ..."

Source: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade web-site, http://www.dfat.gov.au

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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