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Honoring Bob Mathews: An Outstanding Contributor to World Peace

Remarks by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA to event celebrating winning of inaugural OPCW-The Hague Award by Dr Robert Mathews, Law School, University of Melbourne, 12 December 2014

On 4 November 2014, the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that Dr Robert Mathews of Australia was the inaugural joint winner of the OPCW-The Hague Award, established by the Organisation  after it  won the  2013 Nobel Peace Prize to “honour and recognise individuals and non-profit, non-governmental organisations that have made an outstanding contribution to achieving a world free of chemical weapons. “

In the citation, Bob is described as “an eminent scientist and expert who has dedicated his career to the disarmament and non-proliferation of chemical weapons. He made significant contributions to the final drafting of the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as to its establishment, implementation and promotion as a unique instrument eliminating an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.”

I have to say that that is a considerable understatement. Bob’s contribution to making this world safer and saner has not just been “significant”: it has been breathtaking.  He wasn't the only one, or the only Australian, to help make the Convention, but it’s absolutely fair to say that, without him, we would simply not have the Chemical Weapons Convention, the most groundbreaking and I think it’s fair to say most successful arms control agreement ever to have been brought into force – genuinely eliminating an entire category of WMD in a way that that the NPT has so far been unable to do for nuclear weapons, and with enforcement machinery that the Biological Weapons Convention has so far not been able to begin to emulate.

 Without him the world would be witnessing many more horrors of the kind that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq inflicted on Iran and its own people, and that Bashir Assad inflicted on his opponents in Syria until the world swung into action under the Convention to wrench those weapons from him. Bob is nothing less than a living national treasure.  I’m delighted, as we all are, that the OPCW has honoured him in this way, and I’m delighted that through Tim McCormack’s initiative we are able to have this little home-town celebration to recognize the magnitude of Bob’s achievement.

That record of achievement goes back a long way. Bob Mathews commenced his career at the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), where he later became Head of the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms Control Unit, in 1968.  Between 1968 and 1978 his role at DSTO included the synthesis and analysis of a range of CW agents and their precursors, and advising the chemical industry on the detection and analysis of a range of industrial chemicals. 

In 1978, Bob joined the international team of scientists and engineers in the United Kingdom and the United States in developing the portable Chemical Agent Monitor (CAM). The late, great John Gee describes in a note I’ve seen,  how, when attached to the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) in New York in 1991,  he worked very closely with the UK official who was project leader in the development of this monitor, which is now in use in over 20 countries and is seen as the hand-held chemical agent monitor sine qua non: this very senor official described Bob as one of the most innovative and original research workers he had ever encountered.

In the mid-1980s, Bob established DSTO as a UN-designated laboratory for analysis of samples in investigations of alleged use of chemical weapons. His expertise then led to him becoming part of a small group of Geneva experts who initiated the CW analysis exercises which ultimately led to the OPCW Proficiency tests for designated laboratories – and these laboratories were instrumental in confirming the use of sarin in Syria in 2013.

In 1985 Bob assisted in conducting the first practice chemical industry inspection as a means to develop inspection procedures that would provide effective verification of a Convention without being an unnecessary burden on chemical industry.  Later that year he developed the original Australia Group export control list for CW precursor chemicals, and  followed that up a few years later helping develop the control list for chemical manufacturing equipment:  these are today  the internationally accepted norms for responsible export control policy in the field of chemical non-proliferation.

All these achievements were the lead-up to Bob’s greatest contribution of all, which we are celebrating today, the period from 1984 to 1993, when he served as Scientific Adviser to the Australian Delegation to the UN Conference on Disarmament, and played an absolutely central role bringing to fruition the negotiation of the CWC in Geneva.

By the late 1980s negotiations for a CWC had been limping along for two decades without getting close to finalization, part of the problem being lack of drive and will to get the job done, but part of it also being a series of very difficult technical issues, given the difficulty of disentangling weapons-relevant chemicals from those in legitimate industrial use, and working out verification and enforcement regimes that were workable, and that both governments and industry could live with.

It was Australia that played the crucial role in getting things moving, following a phone call in 1989 that I can still vividly remember from US Secretary of State Jim Baker, flying mid-Atlantic, in which he asked me whether Australia could use its middle-power credentials to try to re-energise the CWC negotiations, and in particular get the necessary buy-in from the global chemical industry. We did just that, starting with the Government Industry Conference Against Chemical Weapons (GICCW) which I chaired in Canberra later that year – attended by representatives from 66 countries and all the world’s major industry players –  in which Bob, because of all the work he had been doing on industry-related issues, and the relations he had already built up with industry and industry association players,  was an immensely valuable adviser and participant.

The scene then shifted to Geneva, where a small Australian team consisting of Martine Letts and Chris Moraitis, Tim McCormack as international law adviser, and Bob Mathews as scientific adviser, with immense effort, expertise and diplomatic sensitivity, produced the draft clean ‘Australian Compromise Text’(CD/1143)  - stripping away the nightmarish clutter of competing bracketed texts which had been littering the draft for years – which after a long course of negotiation I as Foreign Minister presented to the CD in March 1992, and which resulted in the finalization of the CWC text in September that year, which was opened for signature in 1993.

The whole exercise was a conspicuous diplomatic success for Australia And I’ve been basking  in it ever since – but always  doing so in the full knowledge that, as the American baseball coach Yogi Berra once famously said, “I couldn't have done it without my players”.  I certainly had a terrific team, with immense legal and policy grunt.   But it’s impossible to overstate the contribution that Bob made to that outcome. What made our effort so distinctive and effective was being able to harness that legal and policy grunt to supreme scientific expertise.

It was Bob who drafted the crucial scientific, technical and verification annexes to the Convention text: the schedules of chemicals, the provisions to enable their revision, and the verification protocols. Probably his most important single contribution was to expand the scope of the CWC industry verification regime by convincing reluctant delegations to agree that basic (Schedule 3) facilities should be subject to routine inspections as well as declarations, and that declaration and routine inspection provisions should also be included for “other chemical production facilities” (OCPFs).

And this wasn't just a backroom role. It was a leading, hands on, negotiating role, pursued absolutely indefatigably, with a command of the technical issues which won universal admiration from the CD delegates – even if they couldn't always completely penetrate his Australian accent. Martine has reminded me that “Bob's Aussie mumble challenged the most linguistically gifted at times” telling me recently that “a colleague from the Mexican delegation who was perfectly bilingual in Spanish and English always had to switch to the interpreters when Bob made his interventions – curiously not into Spanish though, but into French, as the English-French interpretation seemed to manage better with Bob's English than any of the others!” 

Bob’s contribution didn't end with the drafting of the Convention. The OPCW had to be created to put the Convention into effect and Bob played another hugely effective role as a member of the Australian delegation to its Preparatory Commission, in particular helping our John Gee in his initial role as Director of the Verification Division of the Provisional Technical Secretariat, and later as a distinguished member of the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board from 2004 to 2011. 

And he has played other roles as well, too many for me to try and enumerate here, including lecturing and giving guidance to students here at the Melbourne Law School, for which he was made an honorary Associate Professor in 2002.  But one particularly worth singling out is the key role he has played in response to  increasing concerns about chemical terrorism, in particular –  through visits to regional countries  and organizing technical workshops – increasing awareness of the important contribution of the CWC/OPCW in addressing these challenges, including through effective translation of the CWC prohibitions into domestic criminal law. 

I think John Gee, who worked closely with Bob for many years, perfectly summed up the qualities Bob Mathews brought to all these roles when he wrote the following about Bob a few years ago:

His reputation rests in very large part on his very sound judgement: he is fully aware of when to push forward and when to hold back with a particular course of action in order to achieve the long-term strategic objective. Although having started his professional career as a Research Scientist, he has also shown outstanding ability to adapt, participating fully in the work of negotiating bodies which requires astute judgement, sound technical knowledge, a good grasp of political and legal implications of the subject matter and sound common sense. In my experience, he is one of a very rare breed, inasmuch as he has been able successfully to bridge the gap between a purely technical background and policy and representational work. Many scientists attempt this, but not all of them achieve it.

“Over the past decade he has demonstrated a very high ability at both oral and written presentations on a wide range of subjects. The list of publications appended to his application, which varies from technical to arms control embodying a range of diplomatic, political and legal considerations, is outstanding. His representational work is also outstanding: he is equally at home and effective in the capitals of Asia as he is in Washington, London, Paris, Geneva or the Hague.”

I think its fair to add that Bob Mathews’s reputation with his colleagues rests not just on these professional qualities that John Gee enumerated, but his personal qualities as well,  in particular his extraordinary commitment to the cause, and personal generosity. Two examples tell the tale:

- One, quite a few years ago, which John Gee recorded: DFAT and Defence were (as usual) arguing over money and in particular which of them should pay for Bob Mathews to attend a meeting of the Australia Group. When there was no agreement, Bob solved the problem by volunteering up his officially acquired frequent flyer points and flying economy class when everyone else in the delegation went business class.

-  And the other just a few days ago, in his acceptance speech at The Hague for the award which we are today commemorating, which carried with it a prize of 45,000 Euros. Bob said that he thought about a thousand people deserved a share of it but, given the difficulty of getting 45 Euros to each of them, he had decided to give it all to the trust fund for the victims of chemical weapons.

Bob Mathews has been given some piecemeal recognition over the years with a DFAT award in 1993, an OAM in 1994, an honorary doctorate from LaTrobe, and professional fellowships, but his contribution has certainly not had the respect and recognition it deserved from his own organization, DSTO, and I don't really think he has had sufficient international recognition until now.

This OPCW Hague award is a hugely welcome redress of that balance. We are all privileged to have known him and worked with him, and I am honoured to have been given this opportunity to make clear my belief, which I am sure we all share, that Dr Robert Mathews is  a great scientist, a great international citizen, and a truly great Australian.