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ON THE MAIN ROAD TO NOWHERE? NEW PROPOSALS ON THE MIDDLE EAST WMD-FREE ZONE MAY BACKFIRE By Martin Malin, Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs


middle east11 May 15. One of the dramas playing out this month in New York at the 2015 Review Conference for parties to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concerns the future of discussions on establishing the weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East.

The Group of Arab States released a paper last week outlining a new approach, turning away from key elements of the action plan on the Middle East that was negotiated at the 2010 Review Conference. If the Arab group—led by Egypt on this issue—adheres to its position, it is likely to meet with stiff opposition from the United States and others at the Review Conference and it could derail prospects for further dialogue.

The Arab states are understandably frustrated with the years of inaction. In 1995, the indefinite extension of the NPT was conditioned on UK, US, and Russian sponsorship of a resolution calling on Middle Eastern states to take practical steps toward the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. Between 1995 and 2010, there was no discernible movement towards the implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution.

In 2010, the NPT Review Conference called upon the sponsors of the 1995 resolution to convene a conference, no later than the end of 2012, on establishing a WMD-free zone in the region. That deadline came and went, fueling further Arab anger. This week Ambassador Hisham Badr from Egypt recalled the Review Conference’s “dismal record” of unfulfilled commitments on the Middle East.

But the time since 2010 has not been wasted. The UN Secretary General appointed an able facilitator, Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, from Finland. Finland agreed to host a conference in Helsinki. Ambassador Laajava worked tirelessly, in over 600 meetings since 2011, to try to bridge the positions of various parties.

The parties of the region met face to face in five rounds of informal meetings to work out modalities for the Helsinki conference. Iran participated in at least one of these consultations. Israel and several Arab states participated in all of them. Referring to these meetings, Ambassador Laajava reported being “impressed by the participants’ readiness to engage, by their wish to make progress and their open and constructive approach.” In a joint paper this week, the United States, UK, and Russia characterized the meetings as “positive and constructive.” They noted that the parties made “significant progress,” broadly agreeing on the vast majority of the agenda items for a conference, engaging in serious discussion of conference modalities and outcomes, and expressing a willingness to take decisions by consensus.

Israel’s position over the past few years has evolved considerably. In June 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu called the Review Conference’s action plan “deeply flawed and hypocritical” and vowed not to take part in its implementation. But Israel was drawn into the discussions by the facilitator. Today, Israel is participating as an official observer in the Review Conference, for the first time since 1995. Israel also submitted a statement urging the states of the region to assume responsibility for promoting dialogue on WMD-related issues and other security challenges facing the region. Israel reiterated its willingness to participate in a conference once the agenda and modalities are agreed.

The Arab group has now called for scrapping this past work in favor of a new approach. Their proposal calls on the UN Secretary General to launch the process of establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East by convening a conference, within six months of the end of the current Review Conference, inviting all the states of the region to participate. The 1995 resolution on the Middle East would be the terms of reference for the conference, which should create working groups to negotiate the scope and demarcation of the zone, as well as verification and implementation measures. The conference and working groups are to convene annually to negotiate the terms of a WMD-free zone treaty. The UN Secretary General will report on progress to the 2020 NPT Review Conference. The proposal also calls on the P-5 to provide “all necessary support” to the mandate of establishing a Middle East WMD-free zone.

The Arab group’s paper has some positive elements, and new thinking on this issue is definitely needed. In particular, the explicit call for an ongoing and iterative process with working groups should be welcomed. But in other respects, the Arab position seems divorced from reality. A lot has happened in the Middle East since 2010 when the current effort to convene discussions of a WMD-free zone in the region began in earnest. As Ambassador Laajava shuttled between capitals, popular uprisings swept across the region, a devastating civil war has consumed Syria, an Iranian-Saudi proxy war rages in Yemen, and ISIS has emerged as a significant regional player. In the meantime, nuclear negotiations progressed between the P5+1 and Iran, with promising prospects.

Though these developments are familiar to anyone who follows the news, they warrant repeating because the Arab group position seems not to recognize them. It envisions proceeding as if the convulsions of the region, the security vulnerabilities of the states and regimes within it, even the use of chemical weapons in Syria could be disconnected from the discussion of establishing WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

It would be easy to shrug off the entire drama were it not so important to the future of the region. If the 2015 Review Conference collapses without consensus (and it may for reasons that have nothing to do with the Middle East), and efforts to convene a Middle East conference are discontinued, the failure will resonate for years to come. No region-wide institutions exist in the Middle East today. A cooperative process for discussing WMD disarmament is important not for what it might produce this year or next, but because of the foundation it might provide for regional problem-solving in the future.

When the Arab paper proposes placing the job of convening a conference in the hands of the UN Secretary General, it conspicuously erases the notion that the conference will be rooted in “arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region.” This was a key element of the 2010 action plan and the basis of the limited progress we have seen to date. Any proposal that moves the parties away from a regional process is counterproductive.

It is to be expected that the Arab group and Iran will harp on Israel’s nuclear weapons and unsafeguarded facilities. For Israel, this is the price of remaining outside of the NPT while benefiting from its existence. But the Arab position threatens to end an important and fragile dialogue that has unfolded in recent years. If that process is abandoned, the Arab League will be handing a gift to nuclear hardliners in both Iran and Israel, who, for their own reasons, would be content to see an end to efforts to push serious discussions of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.


By Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

22 Apr 15. At the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an emerging notion of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons managed to cut through the usual focus on security policy.

After four weeks of discreet but effective negotiations by a few champion states of humanitarian disarmament, the outcome document expressed its “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirms the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law”. [1]

It was doubtful back then whether any of the nuclear weapon states or the states that currently rely on nuclear weapons in their security doctrines knew that those words would take on a life of their own and develop into one of the most promising and dynamic initiatives that could turn a stagnant nuclear weapons regime into a groundbreaking disarmament process.

Five years later, as governments are about to meet in New York again for the 2015 NPT Review Conference a lot of things have changed: three conferences on the topic took place; 155 states endorsed the joint statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons; almost 70 states pledged to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons; and civil society is mobilizing for a process to ban nuclear weapons to kick-off in 2015.

At this Review Conference, all eyes will be on the humanitarian initiative and the push for a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The humanitarian initiative has generated a powerful and dynamic movement, which has reasoned with many, states, international organisations, and civil society. A humanitarian-based approach to nuclear disarmament has reminded many that nuclear weapons still exist, that there is still a risk of them being used, and that any use would cause devastating immediate and long-term effects. The effects would not be constrained by national borders, and no state or international organization could address the humanitarian emergency in an adequate manner. [2]

Thanks to the three fact-based conferences on the topic in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna, the evidence of the catastrophic humanitarian impact that any use of nuclear weapons would cause is obvious and remains uncontested. At the conclusion of the third conference in Vienna, the Chair’s summary notes that “it is clear that there is no comprehensive legal norm universally prohibiting possession, transfer, production and use” of nuclear weapons. [3]

The Austrian government then issued a pledge to “pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”. [4] Since the Vienna conference, states have been associating themselves with this pledge, and at the time of writing, almost 70 states have declared themselves ready to fill this legal gap. [5]

While such a pledge does not automatically mean support for a ban on nuclear weapons, it seems reasonable to expect that states that endorse the pledge agree that a legal gap should be filled with new law. The momentum for a new, legally binding instrument is clearly growing, and many states declare their willingness to pursue such negotiations even without the participation of any nuclear-armed states.

So what does this mean for the 2015 NPT Review Conference? In light of the evidence presented at the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the humanitarian concerns about nuclear weapons and the need to fill the legal gap must be the key focus of the discussions during the four weeks in New York.

Since its inception, it has often been said that the NPT is in danger. While the Treaty’s non-proliferation aims have served the international community well, the lack of concrete progress on nuclear disarmament affects the credibility of the Treaty. A legal instrument banning nuclear weapons could therefore be pursued in order to implement the obligations of the NPT, and to restore its credibility.

The resistance of the nuclear weapon states to engage in this initiative does not diminish its importance, but it will mean that achieving a progressive outcome document from the 2015 NPT Review Conference that recognizes the momentum achieved in recent years will be difficult.

However, since the two “successfully” agreed outcome documents from the 2000 and 2010 Conferences remain unimplemented, it is perhaps time to stop equating success of a Review Conference or a whole review cycle with a consensus-adopted outcome document. The strength of the NPT does not lie in the sentences agreed upon at each five-year interval, but rather in the actions that states parties take to implement the Treaty obligations.

Despite expected resistance from nuclear weapon states, there is a strong expectation from civil society that supporters of the humanitarian initiative will devote significant time to discuss the conclusions from the three conferences on the humanitarian impact, and in particular ways to fill the legal gap. Such a discussion will be important to carry out even if not all states party to the NPT want to engage, since a new legally binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons is an effective way for all states to implement their obligations under Article VI. Banning nuclear weapons would complement and strengthen the NPT and create a more conducive climate for nuclear disarmament.

As governments gather for the ninth Review Conference of the NPT, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are preparing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of the two cities. The anniversary reminds us that nuclear weapons are not just theoretical concepts for deterrence; they are real weapons with unacceptable and indiscriminate consequences of use.

The 2015 NPT Review Conference is the time for governments to signal their readiness to join a diplomatic process to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons, and launch such process by the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As long as nuclear weapons are seen as important and legitimate, it will encourage proliferation and maintenance of current arsenals. The work to stigmatize, ban and eliminate nuclear weapons is the best defense against the use of nuclear weapons, and it is a responsibility of all states under Article VI.

[1] Final Document, 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty in the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, p.12, pp. 80 (available here)

[2] Chair’s summary of the Oslo Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (available here)

[3] Report and summary of Findings of the Conference, Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, p.2 (available here)

[4] Austrian Pledge, Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, p.2 (available here)

[5] List of states that have pledged to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (available here)

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.

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