The time for positive ideas on the Zone is NOW!

BASIC’s Executive Director, Paul Ingram, reflects on the NPT and where we are on the establishment of the Middle East WMD-free zone:

The NPT PrepCom this week has been overshadowed by the near-universal frustration over the lack of progress on holding a conference on a Middle East zone free of WMD. State after state got up in plenary to express that frustration, many condemning the co-sponsors’ decision in late 2012 to postpone. Beyond the official statements and the complaints in formal plenary sessions, or private hard-talk behind the scenes, how can states bring pressure on the United States to fulfil the commitments it made to bring the conference into being, without threatening the future of the regime? The Egyptians, in protest over the lack of progress and in taking the issue up a notch, attempted to send a strong signal by walking out of the proceedings near the start of the second week. The intention was clearly to shake the meeting up and encourage certain states to take the issue more seriously. It is unclear where they might take this now, nor indeed how the rest of the Arab group might react. The Egyptians have quite a task ahead of them over the next few weeks smoothing ruffled feathers, as the rest of the Arab group was not consulted about the move. There is a danger for the Egyptians that this may become the story, and the original reason for the walk-out eclipsed. Some may conclude that by walking out the Egyptians only underlined the limited nature of their options right now – their powerlessness. Some may take heart at that analysis, that there is no credible threat, and that the status quo can bump along for another few decades. But this would be to suffer a serious illusion. If the Egyptians feel isolated as well as powerless – this could lead to dangerous consequences. It is important that all those involved avoid this result before positions harden. Ironically, the next few weeks after the walk out, whilst everyone is uncertain as its future steps, the next few weeks after the walk out offer the United States a chance to be magnanimous to Egypt and to offer imaginative and positive approaches to where the process can go from here.

hicham badr egypt perm rep to the unIt may be tempting to ask where the power is in this diplomatic conflict. Who will prevail in this contest of wills? The question itself highlights that the principal casualty from this underlying conflict, and that is the regime itself. For the NPT to remain relevant to its core mission – to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and to govern the disarmament of those that exist already – depends upon good will and cooperation to evolve with the development and spread of new and established technologies. The regime requires real nuclear disarmament steps, and it requires tighter proliferation controls… but neither is happening at present to the extent that states can feel confident, and thus the regime itself is in danger… it is not in a happy state. Whilst there is no serious talk about it collapsing or states (beyond North Korea) withdrawing, it may become increasingly irrelevant as the years pass, the statements are made, and reality passes it by. Good will is ebbing away, and the signs of proliferation in the region could well be a direct result. And all states should care about that, particularly those that benefit most from it, whether members of the NPT or not. Israel, in particular, seems to have got a particularly good deal out of the NPT up to now, seeing its neighbours constrained and controlled in the development of their military capabilities whilst they themselves are able to operate outside its constraints. To the Isrealis the status quo must look particularly attractive. But this is not a situation that can be frozen in time. The regime requires a good deal of hard graft and active participation to keep it healthy – it will not thrive on the application of veto. The Americans and their allies need to take a long hard look at just how valuable this regime is for framing their foreign policy narratives, and for strengthening international security.

In an attempt to find a way out of the impasse, the Helsinki Conference facilitator, Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, three months ago proposed consultations in Geneva on the agenda and modalities of the Conference. The Israelis agreed, on condition that the conversation would imply no commitment, fearing that otherwise things could spiral out of their control. But in response, and sensing an open-ended process in which the Israelis would object at the talks to any concrete commitment to hold the substantive conference, the Arabs stipulated that the consultation should be under the UN umbrella, and that states turning up should make a commitment to attend the official Conference on a date specified. The Arab League meeting at Ministerial level locked themselves into this almost irreversible public position (in effect, throwing their steering wheel out of the car in a James Dean game of chicken). At his presentation to the PrepCom, Amb. Laajava appealed to everyone to think laterally and come up with ideas on how best to move forward now.
In that spirit, I would like to suggest a few things:

  1. States need to consider their underlying interests and fears surrounding this process, and express these clearly and openly. There may well then be a way of meeting red lines that are not entirely opposed to each other. The Israelis need to express clearly that they are not yet prepared to make open-ended commitments, but as long as they retain sufficient flexibility are willing to compromise on less important areas. Would they be prepared to engage in consultations that had a deadline to hold the formal conference (31st December 2013, or 31st March 2014 could be two candidates) on condition that they would only go ahead if there were an agenda agreed at the preparatory consultative meeting(s)? This could be a win-win improvement on the current position by giving formal assurance to the Israelis that the Conference would not happen if there were no agenda agreed by consensus, and would assure the Arabs that this was not an open-ended process – that there was a deadline, and a commitment from Israel in principle to attend the Conference (making the conference legitimate), as long as they agreed to the agenda.
  2. The broad international community beyond the three co-sponsors (US, UK and Russia) have been observers on the sidelines. The number and quality of official speeches this week at the PrepCom illustrate an energy and concern that has largely been bottled up. NPT members are acutely aware of the impact of this impasse on the future of the regime. Representing a broad cross-section of the international community with a particular interest in seeing progress on disarmament and non-proliferation but without, as a group, a particular dog in the current fight, the NPDI group of states could approach the facilitator to ask how they might help by highlighting the importance of this process to their agenda, and requesting the relevant parties to strengthen the priority they are giving to the issue of ensuring the Conference happens.
  3. The Arabs need to acknowledge that when it is time for substantive talks on these issues at the Conference, regional security cannot be ignored and will inevitably come into the discussion, even if only as context rather than a watering down of the focus. Equally, Israel needs to recognise that whilst it has a right to abstain from joining the NPT, it has an interest in ensuring the regime continues to be relevant, and that this requires them to cooperate.

This has gone beyond an issue about any one particular country (be that Israel or Iran), and beyond the region of the Middle East. We would all do well to step back and reflect on the benefit that the NPT has provided to ensuring international security and stability to all states, including and particularly Israel, and that this needs to be given greater value than has recently been displayed. Anyone that disagrees with that needs to come up with a pretty good and credible alternative that will appeal across the board.

The views expressed here are those of the author.


Image: Hicham Badr, Representative of Egypt to the United Nations Office at Geneva during Second session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 22 April 2013. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

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