Speech by Alexander Downer Minister for Foreign Affairs at the Lowry Institute

The Threat of Proliferation: Global Resolve and Australian Action
February 23, 2004

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

. . .

The Threat of Proliferation

Ladies and gentlemen.

The Government is deeply concerned by the threat from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The threat is real; it exists now, not just in some theorist's apocalyptic vision of the future. Moreover, so sophisticated and widespread is this threat that we must confront it directly - with action, not merely talk of action. This has been and - as I will reveal - will continue to be the focus of the Government's approach.

The Government is prepared to take the tough decisions against the threat of proliferation. It is not content to allow the threat to gather, or worse, to develop into an attack. Sceptics of the seriousness of the threat of proliferation have received a rude awakening in recent months.

The proliferation network established by Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan and the Libyan connection have revealed starkly the extent of the proliferation threat. It is a compelling snapshot of the illicit trade in WMD; of rogue states, middle-men, subterfuge and deceit. Dr Khan's proliferation network exploited the weak enforcement of export control regimes in several states, relying on front companies, deception and obfuscation. He was peddling the means and know-how to make some of the most destructive weapons known. His clients were states of great proliferation concern: Libya, Iran and North Korea.

But it does not take a great leap to imagine that terrorists could acquire weapons of mass destruction through these networks. Global terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda have the motivation and the means to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Osama bin Laden has said he would use WMD if he had them.

The possibility that terrorist groups will one day secure WMD is more likely while men such as Dr Khan are content to peddle WMD wares and know-how on the black market. The revelations about Dr Khan's activities thus underscore the need for strong and direct action against proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. But then we may never have gained Khan's confession had it not been for the strong action of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and others.

The Coalition's enforcement of mandatory UN Security Council resolutions in Iraq has put proliferators on notice. The Government was right to take action against Iraq's persistent failure to comply with mandatory UN Security Council resolutions requiring Saddam's regime to account for its WMD, the existence of which had been attested by UN inspectors, and its other clandestine WMD capabilities. Robust enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions was the only course of action that would ensure Saddam's compliance.

The interim Iraq Survey Group report of October last year showed that Saddam Hussein continued to pursue weapons of mass destruction, and that he was actively concealing these efforts from UN inspectors.

According to former ISG head David Kay, the ISG had: '...learned things that no UN inspector would ever have learned, given the terror regime of Saddam and the tremendous personal consequences scientists had to run by speaking the truth'. [Senate Armed Services Committee 28/1/04] Even before the search for WMD is complete, Kay has already established unequivocally that 'Iraq was in clear material violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1441'. [Senate Armed Services Committee 28/1/04]

In Kay's view, '...think at the end of the inspection process, we'll paint a picture of an Iraq that was more dangerous than we even thought it was before the war. It was of a system collapsing. It was a country that had the capability in weapons-of-mass-destruction areas and in which terrorists, like ants to honey, were going after it'. [NBC 27/1/04]

A significant dividend of Coalition action in Iraq - but by no means the only one - has been the effect it has had in encouraging cooperation from states of proliferation concern.

First and foremost among these is Libya. I welcome Colonel Gadhafi's declaration of Libya's intent to forgo weapons of mass destruction. Libya's declarations and subsequent inspections by IAEA, UK and US officials have revealed a purposeful WMD program. If left unchecked, this program would have posed a major regional threat. Libya has handed over suspected Pakistani nuclear warhead design information and large amounts of equipment for uranium enrichment centrifuges it had acquired covertly on the black market. It has also revealed substantial chemical weapons activities, including significant quantities of chemical agent and agent-ready bombs. And of course, Libya has alerted us to the extent of the global WMD black market and Dr Khan's role in it.

Iran too has adopted a more cooperative approach in addressing the legitimate concerns of the international community about its nuclear program. Its nuclear confessions and signature of the safeguard-strengthening Additional Protocol with the IAEA are welcome. But Iran must do more to satisfy the legitimate expectations of the international community that it be completely transparent and committed to its international obligations. And the IAEA must stay the course and enforce its own rules - lest weak action give comfort to would-be proliferators. We will continue our work with other members of the IAEA Board to resolve outstanding questions about Iran's nuclear program and ensure Iran's compliance with its undertakings.

Other states, particularly North Korea and Syria, have noted the international community's determination to deal with the threat of WMD. Both have a long way to go before they will have gained the trust of the international community. The delegation I sent to Pyongyang last month reiterated Australia's strong concerns about North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions. It urged North Korea to engage productively in the six-party talks process - and was told that Pyongyang would resume the talks in Beijing starting on 25 February. Welcome as this is, North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons against united international opinion will see it fall even further behind the community of nations.

These recent developments show that we are making progress against proliferators. But the lesson here is that the business of proliferation is easier today than it has been at any other time. And it is easy to see why.

Thirty years' ago, only a handful of states had the ability to make nuclear weapons. Today, the number of states with the capability to pursue a nuclear weapons program has greatly increased. And the number of states with ballistic missile capabilities has tripled in the same period.

Globalization has aided the advance of WMD-related technologies: trade links, education ties and the affordability of technology have never been greater. Concurrently, there has been an increase in political norms against proliferation and acceptance of export controls and other proliferation barriers.

This network of arms control and disarmament treaties and export control regimes has long been our first line of defense. It reassures states and regions that have foresworn weapons of mass destruction. And it has deterred would-be proliferators.

Verification systems play a critical role in ensuring compliance with these international agreements. But clearly determined cheats, hold-outs and walkouts, as well as private entities, can and do find ways to circumvent these defenses. Global verification systems do have their limits and in some cases do not exist. For example, the international community remains unable to agree on a verification system for the Biological Weapons Convention. And not all states have endorsed the extensive verification measures under the additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. More must be done to give global counter-proliferation architecture real bite on proliferators.

Australia: Taking Action Against the Threat

The Government has believed for some time that the status quo of non-proliferation measures is unacceptable. Action is needed. Gone are the days when Canberra Commission-style talk-fests are an acceptable or effective counter-proliferation outcome. This Government is about taking the next steps - practical actions that make a difference. For this reason it will continue to focus its counter-proliferation efforts in three key areas:

the Proliferation Security Initiative, ballistic missile defense and practical measures to strengthen the global counter-proliferation architecture. Proliferation Security Initiative

Australia has enthusiastically participated in the Proliferation Security Initiative. Since the Initiative's inception Australia has worked as a core partner to develop the PSI as a practical measure to impede and interdict the flow of illicit WMD materials. Last year we hosted the second meeting of the eleven core PSI partners. And we led the very first operational exercise - 'Pacific Protector' - involving Australian, US, Japanese and French military and law enforcement assets. No fewer than sixty countries - but not the Opposition - have committed to the principles of the PSI. Significantly, the PSI is already making a difference. Last year, US, UK, Germany and Italy - acting under PSI auspices - interdicted an illicit cargo of centrifuge parts for uranium enrichment en route to Libya. We want to strengthen support for the PSI over the coming year.

We are particularly pleased that Singapore will join PSI core group members at the forthcoming plenary in Lisbon in March. Singapore has knowledge and skills, as well as a unique capacity as the major regional port in South-East Asia, that can be brought to bear directly against would-be proliferators. And its partnership would rightly strengthen the role of Asia - Pacific nations in this critical group.

Australia will participate where practical in PSI exercises. Strengthening the skills of Australian law enforcement and defense personnel in detection and interdiction operations is a core objective of our participation in these exercises. We will also continue our efforts to ensure the timely collection and dissemination of operational intelligence in support of PSI actions and objectives.

Australia shares President Bush's vision of expanding PSI cooperation into the realm of law enforcement, particularly through Interpol. The PSI is fundamentally a practical measure. So it should focus some of its effort on strengthening the capacity of these key professions.

Ballistic Missile Defense

Turning to missile defense, the Government envisages Australia's participation in this system as an integral part of our counter - proliferation strategy. The proliferation of ballistic missiles and the technology that is enhancing their range and accuracy is a significant threat. But it is the proliferation of ballistic missiles by and to rogue states that demands new thinking. Cold war concepts of facing down a rational enemy are ill-suited to addressing the ballistic missile threat from rogue states or individuals.

The strategic doctrine of deterrence or the game theory calculus of mutually assured destruction don't apply when the strategic environment is one of asymmetric threats; threats of coercion and blackmail. Missile defense is a reasonable defensive measure. It will protect people and defense personnel from missile attack. The limited scope of the system - due to be installed operationally for the first time in September - will not spark an arms race. Instead it should dissuade countries and others from acquiring and developing ballistic missiles.

The major nuclear powers understand this. As do the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada which have decided to cooperate with the United States on missile defense. The major powers also understand that missile defense will not change the strategic fundamentals between the great powers.

The Government firmly believes it is unreasonable to deny the United States - and its allies - the right to defend its cities against ballistic missile attack - especially as the technology to do so becomes available. Australia will determine the scope of its participation in missile defense as part of discussions with the United States. We are already making good progress in negotiating a framework with the United States and expect to sign a memorandum of understanding this year.

Global Counterproliferation Architecture

As Australia sees it, there is no doubt new thinking is still needed to strengthen counter-proliferation architecture. The revelations of Iraq, Libya and Dr Khan reinforce the need to strengthen the present system of arms control and export controls.

The challenge is to go beyond the constraints imposed by consensus decision making to lift the standards of compliance and enforcement in these regimes. The Government's efforts and resolve have produced some significant outcomes.

We used our Board position in the IAEA to secure strong resolutions on Iran, thereby increasing the pressure on Iran to cooperate with the international community. Our contribution to the IAEA's Nuclear Security Fund is helping to address the threat of nuclear terrorism through practical measures, such as securing radioactive sources that could be used in a 'dirty bomb'. In the region we have trained officials to provide adequate security for sensitive nuclear materials and facilities. Just two weeks ago my department, working with the IAEA and the US Department of Energy, delivered training in this vital area to regional experts with the job of fortifying defenses against theft and sabotage.

We have developed, and had endorsed within the Australia Group, an Asia-Pacific Regional Action Plan to strengthen implementation of export controls - and identify weaknesses. We will work to have this plan become a template for other regions.

We shall be stepping up our regional outreach efforts, building on visits to Thailand and Singapore last year. In the coming year we plan to do more with key ASEAN countries on transshipment and engage China on its recent white paper on counter-proliferation.

We will also be working to strengthen key treaties and mechanisms. We will work to have the Additional Protocol become the global safeguards standard, so the IAEA is better equipped to uncover the nuclear cheats. We want a stronger Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran's nuclear program has generated renewed attention to NPT's guarantee of access to peaceful nuclear energy. This guarantee carries with it unacceptable risk.

In our view is NPT parties must look again at this issue. We need to be assured that the NPT's peaceful nuclear energy provisions are not abused to acquire the technical basis for a nuclear weapons program. No rights under the NPT can justify actions that are prejudicial to the Treaty's paramount non-proliferation objectives.

Australia will intensify efforts with other countries to ensure exports of the most sensitive nuclear technologies cannot contribute to weapons programs. One option would be a Code of Conduct for Nuclear Trade and Supply, through which all states could demonstrate commitment to effective national controls on sensitive nuclear exports.

Finally, it is time too for the United Nations Security Council to take a firm stand on proliferation. The Security Council should do more to promote and defend WMD non-proliferation standards. The world needs a mandatory Chapter VII resolution on counter-proliferation. I believe there should be a UN Security Council Resolution on WMD non-proliferation which would require states to criminalize proliferation, enact strict export controls, and secure sensitive materials.

I want this resolution because it will lay the foundation for greater Security Council attention to WMD issues

for more productive relations among Security Council members on WMD and set a benchmark for judging the Security Council's relevance in changing strategic circumstances.


Ladies and gentlemen.

What we have learnt over the past year - and continue to learn - about the WMD proliferation threats we face leaves us in no doubt as to the urgency for action. Action to:

  • strengthen the links in the non-proliferation chain
  • strengthen the underlying treaty regime
  • strengthen implementation and verification mechanisms promote practical, innovative steps that get non-compliant states to meet their obligations.

Time we lose to further talking around the issues is time gained by those rogues states - and possibly terrorists - seeking to dodge the system and acquire weapons.

Right from my first days as Foreign Minister, when I took the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to New York for signature, I have been passionately committed to action - to tackle the threat of WMD proliferation head on.

The proliferation clouds are gathering; the time for firm action and resolve is now.

Thank you.