Why all regional states should attend the November 2019 conference on the Middle East WMD Free Zone

The 1995 indefinite extension of the NPT was agreed alongside a decision to hold a conference on the establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, but this conference never happened. Fifteen years later the 2010 NPT Review Conference agreed to hold one by the end of 2012. This also failed to materialise. These failures are largely due to conflicting positions among countries regarding the steps towards achieving a WMD free Zone in the region. Israel, the US and others express the opinion that a WMD Free Zone cannot be achieved in the region without peace, stability and mutual recognition in the region. Arab states in the region tend to express the contrary view that the early creation of a WMD Free Zone in the region would contribute to creating peace in the region.

The 2010 NPT review conference delegated the responsibility to organise the zone conference to the UN Secretary General and the Co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution (UK, US and Russia). All the Middle Eastern states would have been invited to attend. Rather late in the day, Finland was designated as the host government, and Ambassador Jaako Laajava was appointed as facilitator.

Much effort was made to bring the parties together, and there were modest signals of goodwill. Plans were set in motion to hold the conference in Helsinki on December 12th. The Arab Group pulled their traditional resolution entitled “Israeli nuclear capabilities” at the September 2012 IAEA General Conference. Iran announced late in the day on November 7th that it wanted to attend the conference.

However, on November 23rd 2012 the United States unilaterally issued a statement postponing the conference. Preparations had ground to a halt and the conference was called off. The three depository states gave their separate explanations for why it was cancelled. The British argued that there was not enough direct engagement between states to ensure that arrangements for the conference were satisfactory for all participants. A similar statement was given by the US. According to them, the conditions in the Middle East, and a lack of direct engagement between states for them to reach agreement on acceptable conditions for the conference, meant that the conference could not go forward. The US repeated the declaration of unease with the very idea of convening a conference when Israel had been singled out, first expressed immediately after the consensus RevCon decision in May 2010. Russia called for the conference to be held prior to the April 2013 PrepCom because much preparation had already taken place. However, it also argued for the postponement of the conference because not all states in the region agreed to take part in it.

As is clear from the above, the co-sponsors could not agree on suitable courses of action as the process was deteriorating. A conference would have been an essential first step. As Tomisha Bino points out, such a conference would have provided the space for relevant stakeholders to meet and discuss the possibility of disarmament.

Press reports indicated that Israel did not want to be in a meeting where they were likely to be harassed concerning their nuclear weapons program by Arab states. The Arab states also did not want to cave in to Israeli demands that the conference be held under a regional umbrella, away from the auspices of the UN and the NPT, and to cover a broad range of issues.

The cancellation of the conference caused more polarisation and angered certain states more, with much of the blame pinned on the US, and indirectly Israel. In response to the postponement, Egypt walked out of the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee Meeting in Geneva, and called for the conference to be rescheduled very soon.

Bahrain submitted a working paper to the 2015 NPT RevCon on behalf of the Arab Group of States entitled, “Implementation of the 1995 Resolution and the 2010 Outcome on the Middle East”. In it, the Arab Group called for a number of measures, including the UN Secretary General to convene a conference of all Middle East states and the nuclear weapon states within six months, aimed at establishing a process to create a legally binding treaty to establish a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East. This would then meet annually in plenary and in standing working groups.

In documents from the 2015 conference, there exist copies of letters sent by the League of Arab States Secretary General(s) to the UN Secretary General. One can see the deterioration of the situation just from the language used by the Secretary Generals of the Arab League. In 2011, Mr Moussa is expressing optimism at the convening of the 2012 conference. In a letter from March 19th, 2014, Mr Elaraby’s tone is less optimistic. He requests the help of the UN secretary general to make sure that there is no more “unnecessary divergence” from the issue of WMD disarmament in the Middle East, in the 2014 Preparatory Committee. He writes,

“The Arab States believe that a serious and constructive process requires formal preparatory meetings for the conference and that these meetings should be held by the Facilitator under UN auspices…the Arab States perceive the UN as the guardian of the mandate and terms of reference if the postponed conference will be preserved by all parties concerned”.

In the UNGA First Committee meeting of October 2018, the Arab Group tried a similar tactic and proposed a resolution entitled “Convening a conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.” The resolution stated the decision of the UNGA:

“To entrust to the Secretary-General the convening, no later than 2019 for a duration of one week at United Nations Headquarters, of a conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, to which all States of the Middle East,1 the three co-sponsors of the resolution on the Middle East adopted by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons…”

The UNGA Fifth Committee 2018 adopted and agreed to allocate funding for the First Committee resolution A/C.1/73/L.22/Rev.1. This would be an annual conference. The US objected to the commitment without explicit endorsement by Israel, and both countries voted against the resolution. The UK and the rest of the EU abstained. The level of support for the resolution shows the extent to which the tide is turning increasingly towards putting pressure on states to disarm.

The onus now seems to be on Israel and the US to consider whether to attend or boycott the UN conference. During the thematic debate on regional disarmament and security, the US representative made it clear that, while the US supports the goal of a WMD Free Zone in the region, it also believes that “the arrangements and modalities of such a zone should be mutually agreed among all the regional states and not imposed from the outside, consistent with international practice regarding such zones.” They thus disagreed with the Arab Group using “this forum to dictate terms and modalities for pursuing such a zone through costly and politically motivated proposals that do not enjoy consensus support in the region.”

The Israeli representative’s statement made it clear the Israeli perspective that the core struggle of the region today is between radical states (such as Iran) alongside non-state actors, and moderate states. He ended his statement saying:

“The moderate powers of the Middle East need to find ways to work together to address our collective security concerns… We must face and achieve our common goal of a more prosperous and secure Middle East. That is why the moderates in the Middle East should adopt a constructive approach, rather than waste energy and resources on destructive agendas, which will lead us nowhere and only strengthen the radicals.”

The representative ended by saying that “Direct engagements on bilateral and regional platforms are essential, taking under consideration the need to work together against terror and destructive forces in the region.” There may be some indication here of Israeli willingness to be engaged in regional conversations, but only with partners they consider to be ‘moderate’ (to be read as allies of the United States). They voted against the convening of the conference which would have been a big step towards multilateral regional dialogue.

It is thus clear that the US and Israel are not willing to engage in talks with the Arab Group about disarmament unless on their own terms. Their public position is that there cannot be any discussion about WMD Disarmament in the region if the conflicts that already take place there are not addressed or solved. They also consider the Arab Group’s attempts to hold a conference on the establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the region to be an attempt to strong arm them into a process they will not have control of, rather than trying to reach a solution through consensus.

This is the first time since 2010 that the resolution to convene a conference on disarmament in the Middle East has been approved. It may not be the decisive step that some may hope for, but, in my opinion. is a necessary first step towards a future where we are at least closer to WMD disarmament. A WMD Free Zone in the region is not in itself guaranteed to ensure regional peace, but it will mitigate the risk of massive suffering. To delay the establishment of such a zone and any steps towards it, because of the lack of regional peace, only empowers states that possess Weapons of Mass Destruction to continue to produce and use them.

All states of the region have the opportunity to engage. This signals an opportunity and potential to get to the bottom of concerns that lead to WMD acquisition. If Israel claims to feel that it is singled out or unfairly targeted, wouldn’t the best move be to engage in regional meetings where it can make its own case?

The conference may not operate in a perfect fashion. All states will be advocating for their own interests. However, to demand that all states in the region express complete goodwill, have mutual recognition and achieve peace before the establishment of a WMD Free Zone is an impossible precondition. There may be a strong focus on Israeli nuclear weapons, but other cases of WMD use must not be ignored. Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Iran and Arab nuclear programmes and Saudi attacks in Yemen, among other things, have all been brought under scrutiny by different states in the region in similar meetings and conferences. These concerns will probably be raised again in this conference.

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