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Conference on nuclear- and WMD-free zone in the Middle East adopts political declaration

The Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and all other Weapons of Mass Destruction was held on 18-22 November 2019 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This conference results directly from UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 73/546 which mandates the UN Secretary-General to convene this conference “no later than 2019” and to “convene it annually until a legally binding treaty creating such a zone is established.” The conference was presided over by Jordanian Ambassador Sima Bahous. It was comprised of opening statements and general debate followed by several closed sessions on organizational matters, a closed thematic debate, and finally the adoption of a declaration. All of the Middle East states with the exception of Israel participated. Five nuclear-armed states were invited and four participated: China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom (UK). The United States (US) did not. Other observer states, inte-governmental organisations, and non-governmental organisations were present.

Overall, there was a collective sense of urgency and necessity in establishing this zone and all those present appeared willing to participate and negotiate in an open and constructive environment, despite the closure of some sessions to non-governmental participants.

The declaration reaffirms the intention to negotiate a legally-binding instrument. It further noted that future conference sessions shall be held for a duration of one week starting on the third Monday of November of each year, unless otherwise decided. Jordan will remain the president of the conference until the convening of the 2020 session, after which Kuwait will take over.

Below is an analysis written by the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), and civil society group; a summary of statements delivered during the open portions of the conference and organized thematically; and a side event summary.

Achieving the Possible: a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East
By Sharon Dolev, Emad Kiyaei, and Dina Saadallah (METO)

A historic conference took place in the United Nations from 18-22 November, one that has been in the making for decades and could be the start of an important process to strengthen peace, security, and disarmament in the Middle East through the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear and other WMD (henceforth, WMDFZ or simply, zone).

A short background

Calls for the Middle East to become a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) go back to the 1970s. In 1995, states parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Treaty adopted a resolution on the Middle East that inextricably linked the NPT's indefinite extension with "utmost efforts" to establish "an effectively verifiable” WMDFZ and their delivery systems. While the NPT states parties have made the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East a high priority in subsequent review conferences, to date there has been little tangible progress on the zone. This includes failed attempts to convene a conference on the zone in 2012 and to reach consensus on a final declaration in the 2015 Review Conference—primarily because global disarmament and Middle East zone commitments from earlier review conferences were not acted on in good faith.   

Against this bleak background, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution brought forward by Egypt in December 2018 to convene an annual conference until all parties can reach agreement (based on consensus decision-making procedures) on a treaty text to establish the WMDFZ. On 18 November the first conference was convened at the UN Headquarters in New York presided over by the Jordanian UN Ambassador Sima Bahouz with facilitation by the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). To the surprise of naysayers, participation in the conference was robust—with the presence of all twenty-two-member states of the Arab League, Iran, four nuclear-armed states (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom), relevant international institutions and a handful of civil society organisations. The only ones missing in the room were Israel and the United States, who remain attached to their insistence that the region is either not “ready” to discuss the zone or this initiative is simply anti-Israeli. While we hope they will reconsider (we believe that due to consensus, Israel has nothing to lose and a lot to gain), this watershed conference presents an opportunity for states to discuss in good faith the challenges of the zone and explore together how best to overcome them.

The conference

At the opening session of the conference, president Ambassador Sima Bahous emphasised that this is a start of a process. Ambassador Bahous said she had consulted with all concerned states, both present and not present, and called for an inclusive process that will bring stability to the Middle East that has known a long history of wars and human suffering. She stressed the need for a treaty and the need for a consensus during the meetings. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres congratulated the participants for “navigating past the doubters and cynics”. Echoing similar sentiments, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, current  President of the UN General Assembly, added that the conference presents a positive way forward to nuclear disarmament, which is a top priority of the UN, and stressed the need for fresh ideas. The floor was then given to member states from the region. The first speaker was Egyptian Ambassador H.E. Mohamed Idris, who set the tone with a constructive, positive, and forward-looking opening, calling for mutual and equal security for all, adding that the zone will contribute to international peace and security and put a limit to arms race.

The second day of the conference started with statements from states in the region, followed by statements from the international organisations and treaty bodies established by WMD treaties, and the nuclear-armed states. The statements focused on the commitments of the states to the process, called on Israel and the US to join (some emphasised the process alone, and some called on Israel to join all or some of the international related treaties and put its facilities under international safeguards). After reading of the declarations and a short but heated right of reply (Syria and Iran responding to the UK statement “regretting” the convening of the conference), the meeting continued behind closed doors for thematic debates that included (as far as we know) procedural matters, scope, and negotiations on the final political statement. The political statement was adopted on the last day of the conference after a long debate in the afternoon and evening of the day before, as time was not on their side and all texted had to be agreed upon with consensus.

Civil society and the conference

Few civil society organisations (CSO) were granted entry to the opening session of the conference, and it only happened toward the end of the first day as the states participating in the conference had decided to allow a handful of CSOs entry to the open sessions throughout the duration of the conference.

For us, in the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO) this conference was a critically important landmark on the way to the realisation of the zone. While the US position on such initiative is that the time is not ripe, and states in the region are not ready for disarmament, we believe that disarmament, unlike dismantlement, is a long process that starts with a conversation. What we saw in UN Conference Room 11 were the 23 states from the Middle East, sitting in the centre of the room, while on the periphery seats were the four nuclear-armed states and the international organisations. The discussions were held primarily in Arabic, reflecting the most spoken language in the Middle East. While Israel’s seat remained empty, it is important to remember that it is a rare opportunity for the states in the Middle East to sit around one table, with leadership from within the region, and discuss these matters in a constructive way. Therefore, for us, disarmament in the Middle East began last week in New York.

States adopted a political statement, that welcomes all initiatives and “recommendations on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.” This is an encouragement for CSOs to continue their work and in the case of METO to continue the work on a draft treaty text, as a way to stay focused on the possibilities for the zone.

Israel and the conference

We don’t know if Israel or the US will be in the room next year, but hope that it won’t discourage other participants from continuing their positive work. Most regional states called on Israeli adherence to relevant international treaties and to place its facilities under safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). Some think it should be Israel’s first move—in fact, some called for Israel to commit to it as part of the process—while others just observed that while their state is part of all treaties, Israel is not. For not being present in the room, Israel was discussed a lot and mentioned by most speakers by name or as the “one regional state that possesses nuclear weapons”. Both are true. Israel wasn’t in the room and possesses, probably, all weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological weapons). However, it is important to maintain a discourse that will allow Israel to join in the future, and not either isolate it politically or include unachievable provisions.  For the process it is important that the regional states decide if their main goal is to disarm Israel, or to achieve a zone. If the main goal is to disarm Israel =then Israel, present or absent, will have all the power. But if the goal is to create the zone then it is up to the states present in the room to decide what role Israel can play.

We also believe the absence of the US and Israel in the inaugural conference may have been a positive thing, allowing more constructive talks amongst other regional states, but remembering that ultimately Israel should feel it can join future conferences.

The zone and the 2020 NPT Review Conference

The 1995 resolution on the Middle East linked the extension and the integrity of the NPT to the zone. The NPT stands on three main pillars: the right for peaceful use of nuclear energy, non-proliferation, and obligations of disarmament. During the final days of the most recent NPT Review Conference (2015), the five nuclear-armed states diverted attention from their failure to make progress on their own commitments to disarm, or even suggest a timeline for doing so by trying instead to towards “solve” the issues facing the Middle East. Their ill-willed attempt was to use the lack of progress on the Middle East WMDFZ as a scapegoat for failure to reach a final document. The upcoming 2020 Review Conference will probably suffer from the same lack of commitment from the nuclear-armed states—but this time there will be growing pressure from states and CSOs advocating for nuclear disarmament, and especially for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Ban Treaty).

At the 2020 Review Conference we urge the states participating to show more responsibility for the creation of a zone and the integrity of the NPT process by considering the following:

  • Israel is not party to the NPT. Emphasising a decision that can only be achieved by a state that has no legal commitment to the NPT is the opposite of good faith and distracts from finding solutions that can work.
  • Placing the blame of any failure in the review conference, yet again, on the Middle East, might force some states in the region to react negatively. This reaction can manifest in multiple ways, with the possibility of some states leaving the NPT, to growing threats to nuclear arms race in the Middle East and beyond.
  • There are currently three important processes taking place, in addition to the NPT process, towards realising the zone which should be encouraged to proceed without much interference. These are the now-annual UN conferences on the zone; a project led by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) which is supported by the European Union; and the METO process with its track 1.5-2 roundtable negotiations on a draft treaty text, and the campaign calling for the regional states to achieve the possible.
  • The superpowers have exploited the Middle East for centuries, and it is time for the states in the region to lead the conversation on the Middle East. Instead of using the Middle East, we call on the nuclear-armed states to lead by example and act on their disarmament obligations. We ask all states parties to the NPT to protect this precious process and let it take its course with as little interference as possible.

Next steps

A second conference will be convened in November 2020. The next steps are clear for us at METO. At the time of writing this analysis we have already presented our draft treaty text at the recent Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) states parties meeting and will soon hold a side event in cooperation with the Geneva Disarmament Platform and Ireland at the Meeting of States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention. These presentations aim to highlight the need for further involvement of stakeholders working on all WMD disarmament in this process of achieving the zone. It is crucial that the discourse include all parties to these treaties and expand this conversation beyond the NPT.

Our roundtable process will continue in 2020 with two major meetings occurring immediately after the NPT Review Conference to continue our work on the draft treaty. Discussions will have a particular focus on entry into force, the complex issue of regional security, and means of delivery. We hope that our process will encourage open discussion amongst delegates, who are all participating in their personal capacity and under Chatham House rules, will continue to inspire the states to see the possibilities and areas of mutual agreement. In the first half of 2020, METO in Israel plans to launch a campaign calling on Israel to join the process, highlighting that with consensus Israel will have a lot to gain, and not much to lose, by joining these important talks.

[Middle East Treaty Organization (METO) was founded in 2017 by civil society activists and analysts from the region, to show the possibilities and practicalities of such a WMD-free zone and engage with all relevant governments and institutions to take these important disarmament commitments forward. METO is both an objective and a process. Building on previous treaties, METO is engaging a growing network of regional and international experts, activists and governments in discussions on elements for a draft treaty—what needs to be covered and how the zone could work. The draft treaty is a work in progress, to inspire, challenge and engage everyone who is concerned about peace and security. 

RCW summary report

General debate
Adoption of the Declaration
Side event report

GENERAL DEBATE

Desired outcomes of the conference

Legally binding treaty

  • Egypt, Algeria, Palestine, Bahrain, Iran, and Jordan made it clear that among the aims of the conference described in resolution 73/546 is the “elaboration of a legally binding treaty.” They noted that the resolution instructs the UN Secretary-General to “convene annual sessions of the conference…until the conference concludes the elaboration of a legally binding treaty.”
  • Algeria noted this conference is an opportunity to redouble efforts to reach a legally binding treaty.
  • Palestine expressed that the universality of international treaties requires giving life to values and principles and that the establishment of this zone needs binding mechanisms to avoid a new dead letter.
  • Iran noted that the only mandate of the conference is to negotiate a zone treaty and the scope of that treaty must cover nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and verification systems for the zone.

Creation of a WMD-free zone

  • Other states including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the UK, China, Russia, and Morocco expressed their support for the overall establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other WMDs in the region, but did not vocalise support for a legally binding treaty. These states called for practical steps to be taken to achieve the ultimate goal of such a zone. France said its goal is to mitigate tension in the region.

Practical and necessary steps forward

  • Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and France reaffirmed their commitment to putting forth practical proposals and steps to fulfill the mandate of the conference. Egypt said that it will “strive to present realistic and practical proposals regarding achievement of the objectives of the resolution.” Iraq additionally called for practical steps to rid the Middle East of WMDs and achieve positive results. Palestine said that Israel’s absence should not discourage states from laying down practical steps to establish this zone especially with the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference ahead. Lebanon expressed its commitment to achieving practical outcomes with this conference.
  • States agreed that the necessary steps for a successful outcome of the conference are an expression of political will, building on previous agreements and treaties, using other nuclear weapon free zones as a guide, and having comprehensive, non-discriminatory, constructive, and consensual dialogue. Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE, Morocco, and Algeria made statements to this end.
  • Russia stated that the idea of arrangements freely arrived at does not pertain to procedural matters when establishing nuclear-weapon free zones. France expressed that for the conference to be a success it must not isolate any one state, but rather create an environment for consensus.

Participation

Israel

  • Palestine said that the absence of Israel echoes its longstanding policy to obstruct the establishment of this zone. They also expressed that Israel’s refusal to place its nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards poses a serious threat that “looms over the prospect of peace and security in the region.”
  • Iraq noted that Israel is using “fallacious pretexts” to encourage others to seek weapons of mass destruction causing a security dilemma. Syria said that the only way to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is for Israel to join the NPT, place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, and accede to all relevant international treaties, otherwise there will be no tangible results. Syria further noted that the responsibility is not only on Israel but also falls upon those countries that have helped Israel to build its weapon system.
  • Lebanon mentioned that Israel’s intransigence and refusal to subject its activities to international observation is not constructive and will not lead to solutions. Saudi Arabia echoed this by saying that Israel’s failure to honour the commitment to this zone has negative implications.

 United States

  • Russia said that it is “baffled at the position adopted by Washington” in failing to “take the slightest measure to comply with their obligations as one of the three 1995 co-sponsors or under the NPT review conference.” China also expressed concern that the US chose not to participate in the objectives of this conference.
  • Iran noted that the rejection of the US to participate in the conference is an impediment to its success and that this conference will be ineffective without US participation.

1995 Resolution and NPT Review Conference

  • The UAE, Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, and Algeria referenced the 1995 resolution and the commitment, desire, and political will they have to finally implement that resolution. France and the UK recognised their responsibility as co-sponsors to the 1995 resolution. The UK said that it is committed to renewed dialogue in an inclusive, consensus-based, and results-oriented manner. It recognised that a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other WMDs is in line with the 1995 resolution and the 2010 NPT Review Conference. France said that it supports the European Union in implementing the 1995 decision and wants to build trust and confidence. France also mentioned that the 1995 resolution is to be implemented within the framework of a multilateral process, a rules-based order, and should not single out any one state.
  • Yemen and Iran stressed that the convening of this conference is important for the countries of the region but must not replace the 1995 resolution and should complement it.

 International law

  • Morocco emphasised the ethical, moral, and legal responsibility states have to completely eliminate WMDs and remove this existential threat.
  • Palestine pointed out that these weapons have catastrophic consequences and pose an existential threat; their use is at odds with international law and international humanitarian law; and their very existence is illegal.
  • Palestine further stressed the importance of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as a supplement to the NPT and a way to minimise the catastrophic humanitarian consequences and the negative environmental impacts these weapons have on the world. The President of the UN General Assembly made reference to the TPNW, saying that he “commends states that have signed and ratified this treaty and encourage others to do so as well.” Libya also spoke about the importance of the TPNW and noted that it represents a positive step towards multilateralism.

Regional security concerns

  • Many states highlighted why the establishment of this zone is particularly important for the Middle East and referenced specific regional security concerns such as growing armed conflict, and an increase in terrorism and weapons proliferation. Many states highlighted a long history of instability, political injustice, and human suffering from unresolved conflicts and terrorism. UN Secretary-General Guterres noted that civil wars and terrorism “rage on in the Middle East with civilians paying the devastating price, making the establishment of this zone urgent and necessary.”
  • Morocco reminded participants that the Middle East is the “heart of the world, the cradle of humanity, culture, civilizations and trade, but also war and unresolved conflicts.”
  • Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia variously highlighted that the region is on the brink of an arms race, is a hotspot for conflict, and is the only region in world that has made no progress to rid itself of nuclear weapons.
  • Iraq spoke about why the Middle East differs from other regions, pointing out that it is the most sensitive region and the most important economically and strategically. It further noted this region has been the theatre of the “lengthiest conflict of our age—the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

 ADOPTION OF THE DECLARATION

  • The declaration was adopted by consensus and followed by closing remarks from the president, the UAE, Yemen, Egypt, Djibouti, Palestine, Iraq, Bahrain, and Kuwait. All commended the successful conclusion of the conference.
  • Yemen said that “the trip of 1,000 miles has already started and there is no going back now.” Iraq said that participants expressed good faith and political will which will contribute to regional and international peace and security.
  • Palestine said that this is a historic first step towards a legally binding instrument for a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other WMD, declaring that this conference helped protect and preserve the rules-based multilateral system. It further said that they are proud to announce that together participating states managed to “lay down a new brick in the edifice of the zone.”
  • Egypt said that the conference was “successful in laying down the constitutional foundation ensuring a serious negotiation track”. It pointed to the historic and unprecedented key achievements of this conference as proof of what states can do when they work together.

SIDE EVENT REPORT: "Achieving the Possible: a WMD-free zone in the Middle East" by Christian N. Ciobanu, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

In the spirit of the first UN Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction (MEWMDFZ), the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF) and the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO) organised a side event entitled “Achieving the Possible: WMD Free Zone in the Middle East.” Dina Saadallah of METO moderated the event. Christian N. Ciobanu of NAPF opened the meeting by discussing the importance for the relevant parties to hear views from experts, who have been following the subject of the establishment of a zone in the Middle East for decades.

Following Ciobanu’s remarks, Dr. Tarja Cronberg of SIPRI and a former member of the European Parliament, discussed challenges and solutions related to the zone. Specifically, she explained that Israel’s lack of participation in the conference is not a prerequisite towards the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, citing the cases of Argentina and Brazil—which both had fairly advanced nuclear programmes. These states were initially not members of the nuclear weapon free zone in the Latin American and Caribbean region.  Eventually, the norm against nuclear weapons compelled these nuclear capable states to dismantle and accede to the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which established the zone in that region.

Sharon Dolev of METO mentioned that the mere fact that the regional states were engaging in substantive discussions at the conference indicate that disarmament is possible, saying that the conference is a game changer as the regional states are actively engaged with one another. Sharon concluded that eventually the opportunity cost for joining the discussions would exceed the cost of ignoring the preference of Arab states to establish a zone in the Middle East.

Emad Kiyaei of METO described that the conference was successful because regional states have started to drive the process towards the creation of a nuclear and other WMD free zone in the Middle East. Moreover, the conference is a starting point amongst states to engage in a dialogue on both disarmament and regional politics.  He concluded that the conference creates an opportunity to turn “this beast of the Middle East to a sweet unicorn.”