The Australia Group

Fighting the spread of chemical and biological weapons. Strengthening global security.

Background Paper

I. Background

In April 1984, in response to the findings of the special investigatory mission sent by the UN Secretary General to Iran that chemical weapons had been used in the Iran-Iraq war, a number of governments placed licensing measures on the export of a number of chemicals used in the manufacture of chemical weapons. They took this action in order to meet the political requirement for a response to:

In these circumstances the countries concerned saw an urgent need to address the problem posed by the spread of chemical weapons and ensure that their industries were not, either on purpose or inadvertently, assisting other states to acquire and use such weapons in violation of international law and norms.

Likewise, in 1990 the countries concerned recognised the need to take steps to address the increasing problem of the spread of biological weapons.

The measures imposed by the governments concerned, however, were not uniform either in scope or application. It also became apparent that attempts were being made to circumvent them. This led Australia to propose, in April 1985, that the countries which had introduced licensing for exports might meet in order to examine the scope for harmonising the measures taken individually and for enhancing cooperation amongst them on this issue. Accordingly the first meeting of what subsequently became known as the Australia Group took place in Brussels in June 1985. All participating countries agreed there was benefit in continuing this process, and meetings of the Australia Group are now held in Paris on an annual basis. The number of countries participating in the Australia Group has grown from 15 in 1985 to 30 plus the European Commission. Romania and the Republic of Korea are the two most recent countries to join the Group.

II. Australia Group Consultations

The Australia Group is an informal arrangement. Participants do not undertake any legally binding obligations: the effectiveness of the cooperation between participants depends solely on their commitment to CBW non-proliferation goals and on the effectiveness of measures implemented nationally which aim at preventing the spread of chemical and biological weapons. The purpose of the Australia Group meetings is to explore the scope for making the measures already taken by participating countries more effective, including through the exchange of information, the harmonisation of measures already taken and, where necessary, consideration of the introduction of additional national measures.

As to the nature of the export licensing measures taken by participating countries, important considerations are:

Measures agreed by meetings of the Group are applied on a national basis, although all participants agree they will be more effective if similar measures are introduced by all potential exporters of relevant chemicals, biological agents and equipment and by countries of possible transhipment.

Export licensing measures also serve to demonstrate the determination of participating countries to avoid not only direct but also inadvertent involvement in the spread of chemical and biological weapons, and to express their opposition to the use of these weapons. It is also in the interest of commercial firms and research institutes and of their governments to ensure that such firms and institutes are not inadvertently supplying chemicals, chemical equipment, biological agents or biological equipment for use in the manufacture of chemical or biological weapons. This principle has been firmly supported by industry.

Participating countries recognise from the outset that export licensing measures are not a substitute for the strict and universal observance of the 1925 Protocol and the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and the early implementation of and universal adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force on 29 April 1997. All members of the Australia Group are States Parties to the BWC and are original States Parties to the CWC. Support for these regimes and their objectives remains the overriding objective of the countries participating in the Australia Group.

III. Outline of the Australia Group Export Licensing System

Each participant in the Australia Group has introduced licensing measures on the export of certain chemicals, biological agents, and dual-use chemical and biological manufacturing facilities and equipment with a view to ensuring that exports of these items from their countries do not contribute to the spread of chemical and biological weapons.

All participating countries have licensing measures over 54 chemical weapons precursor chemicals. Participating countries also require licences for the export of dual-use facilities and equipment related to the manufacture of chemical weapons.

All participating countries operate controls based on lists of human, animal and plant agents as well as BW dual-use equipment developed during Australia Group consultations. Participating countries require licences for exports of such items.

IV. Evaluation of Australia Group Measures

The effectiveness of the Australia Group consultations and licensing measures cannot be established in an absolute manner, but they have clearly raised the cost of acquiring an offensive CW capability by drying up some sources and diverting the delivery routes of CW proliferators. In some cases they have imposed barriers to countries which have acquired, or are seeking to acquire. CW by forcing them to look to other alternatives, such as less efficient production routes. In other cases they may have raised the cost of acquiring CW to the point that an interest in CW was not pursued. Similar results are hoped for in relation to the Australia Group's efforts to prevent the spread of biological weapons.

What can be said with more certainty is that the Australia Group has succeeded in raising the awareness of participating countries and their industries about the risks of involuntary association with CBW and has helped them to avoid this danger. In most participating countries, particularly since the 1991 Gulf War, effective national licensing measures have been essential in meeting the demands of public opinion that their products do not contribute to the spread of CBW.

Participating governments have concluded that the Group provides a viable mechanism for taking practical measures aimed at preventing the spread of chemical and biological weapons. They recognise, however, that export licensing measures on chemicals, agents and equipment alone cannot be a complete barrier to the spread of chemical and biological weapons in the longer term.

V. Relations with Non-Participating Countries

Participating countries recognise that export licensing measures on chemical and biological weapons precursors, equipment, and technology need to be maintained by as many relevant supplier or transhipment countries as possible to be effective. Since early 1986 individual participating countries in the Australia Group have conducted consultations on a bilateral, ad hoc, basis with other relevant countries to encourage the establishment of similar national export licensing regimes. A growing number of non-participating countries have indeed decided to put in place similar national measures.

In 1992 the countries participating in the Group decided to extend their outreach program to include a wider range of countries. Australia as Chair of the Group now briefs almost sixty countries each year about the Group's work. The aim of the briefing exercise is to make the work of the Group better known and understood and to explain the need for export licensing measures. At the 1999 Meeting of the Group, participants endorsed the importance of maintaining dialogue with non-participants and encouraging relevant countries to put in place measures to prevent assistance to CBW proliferators, thereby implementing their obligations under the CWC and the BWC. To this end, participants agreed to implement an expanded outreach program, which will continue to include briefings for countries not participating in the Group, as well as potentially incorporate an Australia web site and/or regional seminars on export licensing practices.

VI. Relationship with the Chemical Weapons Convention

The participating countries in the Australia Group gave strong support to the negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva which resulted in the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). They all became original signatories to the Convention when it opened for signature in Paris in January 1993 and are original States Parties to that Convention. They are now playing an active and constructive role in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague.

The CWC contains a number of provisions in relation to the transfer of chemicals which pose a risk to the Convention. Article I of the CWC requires States Parties to the Convention to refrain from actions which would assist others to acquire chemical weapons. Article VI requires States Parties to ensure that the transfer of toxic chemicals does not take place for purposes prohibited by the Convention, and Parts VI, VII and VIII of the Annex on Implementation and Verification impose specific restrictions on the trade in chemicals listed in the Schedules to the Convention. For these measures to be effective, the establishment of efficient national export licensing mechanisms is required.

Article XI. 2. (e). of the CWC requires States Parties to review their existing national regulations in the field of trade in chemicals in order to render them consistent with the object and purpose of the Convention. The participants in the Australia Group agree there is a continuing role for the Australia Group in the harmonisation of national non-proliferation licensing measures over CBW-related materials. They recognise that the work of the Group should take fully into account the entry into force of the Convention and its implementation.

VII. Relationship with the Biological Weapons Convention

All of the participating countries in the Australia Group are States Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), which has been in force since 1975. These countries have also been active in efforts to strengthen this Treaty regime, including by a strong record of participation in the confidence building measures agreed by successive BWC review conferences, and more recently in the negotiations in the Ad Hoc Group of States Parties aimed at developing a legally binding instrument setting out verification and other strengthening measures. Article III of the BWC obliges States Parties to prevent the transfer of materials which might assist the manufacture, or any means of acquiring, biological weapons.

The participants in the Australia Group encourage all countries to take the necessary steps to ensure that they and their industries are not contributing to the spread of biological and chemical weapons. Export licensing measures serve to demonstrate the determination of AG countries to avoid involvement in the propagation of these weapons in violation of international law and norms. The participants in the Australia Group urge other countries to adopt comparable export licensing measures on relevant materials in order to halt the spread of chemical and biological weapons and thus support the establishment of the global ban on these two entire classes of weapons of mass destruction enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention.