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Tuesday, 17 March 1987
Page: 839

(Question No. 1573)

Senator Peter Baume asked the Minister representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs, upon notice, on 9 December 1986:

(1) Has the Minister for Foreign Affairs' attention been drawn to a report in the London Sunday Telegraph on 23 November 1986 which reported that the Soviet Union supplied chemical warfare weapons to Syria via Libya.

(2) Can the Minister confirm this report and repeated earlier reports which claimed Syria has acquired Binary Sarin Nerve Gas as warheads for their new long range SS21 missiles.

(3) If the Minister can confirm the acquisition by Syria of such dangerous weapons of mass destruction, will Australia warn Syria, Libya and the Soviet Union against the use of such weapons.

(4) What steps will the Australian Ambassador for Disarmament and other Australian representatives take at international forums to prevent the widening use of gas warfare in the Middle East.

Senator Gareth Evans —The Minister for Foreign Affairs has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) I have been advised of such a report but I have not read it.

(2) and (3) I am unable to confirm the London Sunday Telegraph report, nor reports that Syria has acquired Sarin nerve gas as warheads for their SS21 missiles. It is possible, however, that Syria has imported that precursor ingredients for the manufacture of chemical warfare agents (including perhaps Sarin). I am advised that the technology for placing chemical warheads on missiles such as the SS21 is complex and I do not know whether Syria could do this effectively or whether Libya would be in a position to supply them.

Australia has spoken out strongly against the use of chemical weapons by any country and will continue to do so. On 16 March 1986 in condemning Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the Gulf War, I made clear that the Australian Government did not consider the use of chemical weapons justified under any circumstances. Australia has long urged that the current negotiations for a convention to eliminate chemical weapons should include, as one of its objectives, a ban on the use of such weapons. At the recently concluded UN General Assembly, Australia cosponsored two resolutions on chemical weapons both of which for the first time endorsed this Australian position.

(4) A comprehensive international convention banning chemical weapons has long been a high priority for Australian disarmament policy. Iraq's confirmed use of chemical weapons in the Gulf war and disturbing indications over the past few years of a slow growth in the number of states either possessing or interested in acquiring an offensive chemical warfare capability have lent a special urgency to this task. Accordingly, Australia's work on this subject has picked up momentum in the past two years to the point where foreign commentators, notably in the United States, have spoken of ``Australia's leadership role'' on this subject. Work is proceeding on three fronts.

First, Australia has been prominent at both the diplomatic and technical level in the negotiations at the 40-nation Conference on Disarmament for a new Comprehensive Chemical Weapons Convention. It is intended that this Convention will not only halt the use of chemical weapons but also their possession and manufacture, and that it will require the destruction of existing stocks and their means of production under effective international supervision and the monitoring of civilian chemical industries to guard against the hidden production of weapons. In 1986 Australia chaired one of the Conference on Disarmament's three Working Groups on this topic which made considerable progress. In May 1986 the Australian delegation to the Conference on Disarmament tabled a paper outlining the results of a trial run of inspection procedures of a civilian chemical plant carried out in Australia by Government officials with the willing cooperation of the Australian company which owns the factory.

Second, Australia has been active against chemical weapons in the United Nations, and has supported an initiative to authorise the United Nations Secretary-General to undertake investigations of reports of the use of chemical weapons. This led the Secretary-General to compile a list of laboratories and experts to assist him in the investigation of reports of use of chemical weapons e.g. through the analysis of samples gathered in the course of such investigations. Australia nominated the Defence Department's Material Research Laboratories (MRL) in Melbourne for inclusion on the Secretary General's list and has spent nearly $400,000 on providing MRL with additional manpower and equipment. Dr Peter Dunn of MRL participated in the 1984 and 1986 United Nations Secretary-General's on-site investigations in Iran, which confirmed Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the Gulf War. Iraq's use has been condemned by the Security Council also with Australia's participation.

Finally, the Government has taken steps to ensure that Australia does not inadvertently contribute to the problem of chemical weapons use through chemicals which are exported from Australia being secretly diverted to the manufacture of chemical weapons. The Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations have been amended to control the export from Australia of eight chemicals that could be misused in this way and the Government has recently decided to apply export controls to an additional 22 such chemicals. Australia has convened consultations with eighteen industrial countries which have adopted similar measures (known as the `Australian Group') with a view to harmonising and cooperating in such measures internationally, as well as exchanging information and warning domestic chemical industries against the dangers involved.