Middle Eastern States Are Back on The Path to A WMD Free Zone

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is President of Pugwash and former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

Photo: Twenty-five years since the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize shared by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat – who negotiated and signed the Oslo Peace Accords – peace continues to evade the Middle East, Palestine-Israel relations remain tense and a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Zone in the region is nowhere in sight. The picture shows Rabin (left) shaking hands with Arafat (right) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 2001 | Credit: CC BY-SA World Economic Forum.

NEW YORK (IDN) – The establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone in the region of the Middle East has been one of the most frustrating undertakings in the field of arms control and non-proliferation at the United Nations. Over the past few decades it has been possible for States in other regions of the globe to successfully negotiate and adopt treaties that establish nuclear weapon free zones that greatly enhance peace and security. [2019-12-01-23] GERMAN | ITALIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

These weapons were first banned in uninhabited places such as the Antarctic, outer space and the ocean floor. In 1967 Latin America and the Caribbean pioneered the establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone (as part of the Treaty of Tlatelolco) in a populated region and their example was later emulated by the South Pacific (Treaty of Rarotonga), Southeast Asia (Treaty of Bangkok), Africa (Treaty of Pelindaba)  and Central Asian (Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia), plus Mongolia.

114 States, the large majority of which situated in the Southern Hemisphere, have pledged not to allow nuclear weapons in their territories and accepted other related commitments. Despite differing historic, political, economic, cultural and security realities, all those States had at least one important element in common: none possessed nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

That is not the case of the Middle East. States of the region, however, have endeavored for many years to make that project a reality.

The first resolution on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East was proposed by Iran and Egypt in 1974 and was routinely adopted every year without a vote by the General Assembly until last year. Several resolutions of the Security Council also endorsed that proposal. Similarly, since 1991 the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has adopted every year a resolution calling for the application of full scope safeguards on all nuclear facilities in the region “as a necessary step for the establishment of the NWFZ”.

In1988, a study on measures that would facilitate the establishment of such a zone in the Middle East was undertaken by the United Nations and made recommendations on the matter, mainly in the form of confidence building measures. In 1989 the IAEA carried out a study on modalities of a safeguard system that could be applied to nuclear facilities in the region as a step toward that objective.

One important breakthrough was achieved when a resolution sponsored by the three Depositaries of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Russia, United Kingdom and United States) expanded the scope of the proposed free zone by calling for “the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems.”

Agreement on that resolution, together with other elements included in a package of decisions ensured the indefinite extension of the NPT without objections at the Review and Extension Conference in 1995. Sharp disagreements between countries in the region and differing perceptions of threats and security concerns, including by other players, however, have stymied practical progress on the attainment of that objective.  

In 2000, the NPT Review Conference reaffirmed that WMD free zones enhances global and regional peace and security, strengthens the nuclear non-proliferation regime and contributes towards realizing the objectives of nuclear disarmament. The Conference regretted that little progress had been achieved and took note of the reaffirmation by the five nuclear-weapon States of their commitment to a full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East.

A way forward seemed to have been reached when the 2010 NPT Conference endorsed the understanding that the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution would convene a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon States.

The Secretary-General and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, in consultation with the States of the region, would appoint a Facilitator, with a mandate to support implementation of the 1995 Resolution. The Facilitator would report to the 2015 Review Conference and its Preparatory Committee meetings. Furthermore, a host Government for the 2012 Conference would be appointed.

Accordingly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon conducted a number of consultations with the three co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution and other interested parties and appointed Finnish diplomat Jaako Laajava as Facilitator. Over the next couple of years Mr. Laajava held consultations which included Israel and other States of the region. Progress, however, remained elusive.

A new effort was attempted at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, but the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada did not support the President’s proposal to convene a Middle East WMD Free Zone Conference by 2016. They argued that the proposal was not based on "consensus and equality," and contained "unworkable conditions" and "arbitrary deadlines." The Review Conference was thus unable to adopt a substantive Final Document.

The ensuing frustration led the Middle Eastern States to adopt a different strategy at the 2018 Session of the General Assembly. As the decisions of the Assembly are taken by majority vote and not by consensus – as is customary with NPT Review Conferences – Egypt introduced at the I Committee a draft resolution mandating the UN Secretary-General to convene a conference on taking forward a WMD-free zone in the Middle East in 2019 and every year thereafter until a zone is achieved.

The Resolution was adopted by 88 votes in favor and four against (Israel, Liberia, Micronesia and the United States). 75 States abstained.

Accordingly, Secretary-General António Guterres convened the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction. Its first session was held from November 18 to 22, 2019 in New York under the presidency of Ambassador Sima Bahous of Jordan.

23 States from the region attended the Conference. The five nuclear weapon States recognized by the NPT were invited as Observers. China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom accepted the invitation. Participants agreed to proceed by consensus on procedural and substantive issues pending the final agreement on rules of procedure, which will be considered during the intersessional period.

The thematic debate centered on principles and objectives, general obligations regarding nuclear weapons, general obligations regarding other weapons of mass destruction, peaceful uses, international cooperation, institutional arrangements and other aspects. Prior to the second session of the Conference, representatives from existing nuclear-weapon free zones will be invited to share good practices and lessons learned.

The Political Declaration adopted by the Conference stated the belief of the participating States that a verifiable Middle East Zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction would greatly enhance regional and international peace and security and affirmed their intent to pursue in an open and inclusive manner the elaboration of a legally binding treaty on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region.

In that spirit, the Conference extended an open-ended invitation to all those States to support the Declaration and join in the process. Participating States also undertook to follow-up on the Declaration and on the outcomes of the Conference. The next session will take place in New York from November 16 to 20, 2020.

Given the past history of efforts to achieve progress and taking into account the political situation and the tensions in the region the final outcome of the Conference can be considered reasonably successful. It can be assumed that the immediate objective is to establish a process that may lead to progress later on.

The absence of Israel and the United States at the Conference was already expected but did not prevent the Conference from proceeding as planned. It seems clear that Israel and the United States will not change their positions in the immediate future. It is important to note that the countries of the region showed unity of purpose and were able to avoid possible pitfalls.

However, divergent security perceptions will have to be reconciled in the follow-up process. The decision-making method in future sessions of the Conference will continue to be one of the main questions under discussion, given the preference of some to consensus over other methods. Much effort will be needed in the intersessional period to define the next steps to be taken.

Persistence, diplomatic skill, creativity and above all political will from the States of the region and other relevant players, particularly the nuclear weapon States, will be required to advance in the path toward ensuring the absence of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in that region. The international community must lend its full support to that endeavor. [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 December 2019]

Photo: A view of the sculpture – Good Defeats Evil – on the UN Headquarters grounds, presented to the UN by the Soviet Union, predecessor of the Russian Federation, on the occasion of the Organization’s 45th anniversary. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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