A SUCCESS STORY | May 2, 2005 Issue - Vol. 83 Issue 18 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 83 Issue 18 | p. 30
Issue Date: May 2, 2005


The multinational Australia Group celebrates 20 years of stemming the spread of weapons
Department: Government & Policy

The Australia Group (AG) marked its 20th anniversary in April by, for the first time, holding its annual meeting in Sydney, Australia, and being addressed by a foreign affairs minister. The group is an informal organization of 39 countries plus the European Commission. It normally meets in Paris and is usually attended by senior level--but not top --government officials who coordinate export controls and discuss intelligence on possible diversion of weapons-making materials.

The group's deliberations and the comprehensive lists of control items it develops have no legal authority, which makes the group's success all the more remarkable. The effort works because member nations are committed to nonproliferation, and they make evident that commitment by enacting similar, legally binding export-control regulations that are easy to implement yet do not impede normal trade in items used for legitimate purposes.

AG was formed in 1985 in response to the massive use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War. Then, at the instigation of Australia, 15 countries including the U.S. met in Brussels to hammer out pragmatic ways to stem the spread of chemical weapons. The thinking was that if all member countries controlled in a cohesive fashion the export of precursor chemicals and relevant dual-use production equipment to rogue nations, chemical weapons proliferation could be slowed, if not totally halted.

The group started out advocating controls on precursor chemicals and equipment by listing items of concern. But by the early 1990s--especially underscored by the fear that U.S. and coalition forces might be assaulted by biological as well as chemical weapons in the 1991 Gulf War--it became evident that biological materials and equipment needed to be controlled as well.

By 1993, AG expanded its control lists to cover precursor chemicals (now numbering 63), dual-use chemical production equipment, and biological agents. The latter are separated into lists of human and zoonotic pathogens and toxins, animal pathogens, plant pathogens, and dual-use biological production equipment.

Not only has the number of lists grown over the years, but membership also continues to expand, and with growth has come clout. As Daniel Feakes, a research fellow in the Harvard Sussex Program on CBW Armament & Arms Limitation, explains, AG has "set minimum standards for national export control systems, which are gradually becoming more widely accepted."

INDEED, as Robert J. Mathews writes in the December 2004 issue of the CBW Conventions Bulletin, "There has been a growing acceptance of the AG lists as the international benchmark in relation to export controls directed at [chemical and biological weapons] proliferation." Mathews is a senior scientist in Australia's Defence Science & Technology Organisation.

These lists were initially directed at stemming the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons to rogue nations--or in the current parlance, nations of concern. In the aftermath of the anthrax letters coming on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the group began to consider measures that would bar terrorists from acquiring relevant biological items.

Recognizing the difficulty in controlling illicit trade in all possible items that could be used in national weapons programs or by terrorists, AG member countries decided to invoke a so-called catch-all provision in its lists. This provision acts as a safety net by inhibiting a nation from supplying an unlisted item if there is suspicion that it might be used for chemical or biological weapons purposes.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer opened the weeklong Sydney meeting on April 18 by noting that "staying one step ahead of proliferators is no easy task but a necessary one to ensure the work of the Australia Group remains relevant." His remarks spotlighted the challenges presented by terrorists and cited such obstacles to nonproliferation efforts as the rapid pace of technological change.

Downer said that "brokering in the form of front companies and intermediaries also serves to mask the true end use of dual-use exports and makes the enforcement of export controls more difficult." In response, AG agreed to conduct a survey of members' brokering controls and to develop best practice guidelines.

Downer also called for "fresh thinking ... to ensure that adequate measures are in place to prevent the unauthorized transfer of sensitive technologies and know-how." He said compliance could be improved by raising awareness: "Outreach to industry and academia improves the system by making sure that those on the front line understand the licensing process, the reasoning behind it, and are alert to suspicious contacts and behavior."

His bottom line is that AG needs "to continue to evolve as a forum to address changing and developing proliferation threats."

A U.S. official familiar with the work of AG but not directly involved in it tells C&EN that the U.S. went into the meeting seeking an "acknowledgment that North Korea, Syria, and Iran are really areas to be focused on." The official also says the U.S. wanted "a tightening of controls on aerosol sprayers and pumps" that can be used to make biological weapons and supported Ukraine's request to join the group.

The U.S. was successful in achieving much of what it wanted. Ukraine became the group's 39th member state, and aerosol sprayers were added to the biological equipment control list.

Despite its successes, Feakes notes, some criticisms have been lodged against AG. "It's been accused of operating like a cartel with self-selecting membership and secretive processes." And, he adds, "it's been accused of hindering the economic development of poorer countries by preventing the transfer of dual-use technologies."

On the plus side, the group's efforts and especially its control lists have served as a handmaiden to the nonproliferation aims of the chemical and biological weapons treaties.

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