A scientist and WMD expert with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), Dr Robert (Bob) Mathews, has been honoured by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for his contributions to chemical weapons disarmament in a ceremony on 1 December in The Hague.

Dr Bob Mathews (Left), winner of the inaugural OPCW-The Hague Award, 1 December, 2014

This was the first of what is to be an annual award designed to preserve the legacy of the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded in 2013 to the OPCW, the international organisation created by the 1996 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Chemical weapons are potentially indiscriminate and can cause mass destruction. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) knows too well from direct experience in the First World War the physical and psychological impacts of fighting in an environment where such weapons are deployed. The First World War left some 90,000 dead as a result of chemical weapon use and more than 1 million survivors, most with life-long lung damage. The ADF, and incidentally Australian diplomats, needed to prepare for the contingency of chemical weapon use as recently as the 1991 Gulf War and the 2013 Iraq war. DSTO is a vital element of the ADFs ability to safeguard against such weapons.

However, it is far better to remove them from the battlefield altogether.

Australia has provided decades-long bipartisan leadership in securing a world free of chemical weapons. We played a critical role getting the CWC adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993. An Australian diplomat, the late Dr John Gee, was instrumental in establishing the OPCW, which is charged with oversight of the elimination of chemical weapon stocks and inspections. These inspections provide confidence that countries are not arming themselves with chemical weapons in violation of their treaty commitments.

With Syria acceding to the CWC in 2013, key stand-outs still not party to the Convention are Egypt, Israel and North Korea (the others are Myanmar, Angola and South Sudan). Considering the number of countries that are party to the treaty, the Nobel Peace Prize was fitting recognition of a truly inspirational international effort to eliminate chemical weapons globally.

The OPCW citation records that Dr Mathews, and his co-recipient, the Finnish Institute for the Verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, 'made valuable contributions to advancing chemical weapons disarmament since well before the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the founding of the OPCW'. Further, they had provided 'sustained leadership and support to the developments of key concepts of the Convention'.

Dr Mathews acknowledged in his remarks after the ceremony that his award reflects the efforts of a number of Australian Government agencies working closely over many years.

But the DSTO, through Dr Mathews, has brought two invaluable and unique assets to Australia's contribution.

First, the vital scientific underpinning of our advocacy for a strong CWC backed by effective verification. As part of the Australian team negotiating the CWC and subsequently in the complex process of constructing the OPCW destruction and verification roles, Dr Mathews ensured the scientific credibility of Australia's diplomatic efforts. Australia's ongoing commitment to sustain the CWC and OPCW as pillars of the international counter-proliferation architecture will require continued scientific inputs of the highest calibre. Absent that expertise, our contribution to and influence in the international arms control regime will diminish.

Second, Dr Mathews has provided vital continuity to Australia's efforts to eliminate chemical weapons. The Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence are charged with providing the policy direction for Australia's counter-proliferation efforts. But their key policy staff are regularly rotated. Continuity and in-depth expertise are not rewarded. The Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office (ASNO) ensures Australia's observance of our obligations under the CWC. But Dr Mathews has provided a necessary measure of continuity to our interaction with the global network of expertise that underpins the credibility of the CWC and the OPCW. In performing that role, his internationally respected professionalism is backed by a passionate personal commitment to the cause.

Threats from WMDs remain, and our national security requires capabilities to deal with them. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade needs to retain the resources and expertise to engage in regional and international efforts to build barriers to WMD proliferation. The diplomatic and intelligence effort to eliminate the threat must be backed by expertise that is only available from specialist areas of the Defence establishment and ASNO. Additionally, the ADF needs to maintain the capability to deal with WMD threats. One would hope that the next Defence White Paper will recognise and address this ongoing national security requirement.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user OPCW.