Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava starts a new job this week.
Finland, the cradle of the Helsinki process that played a vital role in ending the Cold War, is no stranger to international mediation. But this could be the toughest assignment yet for Finland’s undersecretary of state at the foreign ministry, who was named last Friday to be facilitator of the 2012 conference on a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
After a long delay, the appointment of Laajava and the designation of Finland to host the conference means that preparations can at last begin. The decision to convene the conference was taken by states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May last year.
Friday’s announcement at the United Nations, in a joint statement by the UN secretary-general, and the US, UK and Russia (the co-sponsors of a 1995 resolution on a WMD-free zone, and the depositary states of the NPT) reflects agreement with the states of the region including Israel which were all consulted about the choice. Israel is not an NPT member and the only state in the region holding nuclear weapons although its arsenal is not officially acknowledged. The Israeli government has posed conditions but is no longer ruling out participation in the first discussions at such a forum with Iran on mutual security concerns.
The exact conference date has yet to be fixed, and Laajava in his first comments following his appointment, noted that “the timetable for the conference and all other details of arranging the event remain open. The time-frame is broadly 2012*.”
It’s a fair point, given the amount of work to be done and political will required from all the parties for a successful conference. In this respect, Laajava’s appointment and the designation of Finland as host country break through an important psychological barrier which had allowed many in the diplomatic community to doubt that the conference would ever take place. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, welcomed Laajava’s appointment, saying that although a long-term goal, a Middle East free of all WMD and their means of delivery is “achievable”.
Laajava is currently undersecretary charged with foreign and security policy. He is a former ambassador to both the US and UK which have a big stake in the 2012 conference. The Finnish government noted that the facilitator will be engaging in consultations around the region and is to report to the NPT review conference preparatory committee in May next year.
As Finnish President Tarja Halonen put it: “A zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East would be a major contribution to disarmament and non-proliferation as well as to regional and global security. It is now our joint responsibility to succeed.”
*Laajava has subsequently let it be know that “broadly” 2012 was a mistranslation from the Finnish
These are the personal views of the author