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UN continues its push for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East

Thalif Deen | Published: November 29, 2019 20:36:30


A  longstanding proposal for a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East - one of the world's most conflict-ridden regions – has been kicked around the corridors of UN committee rooms since 1974.

And as another effort to negotiate a legally-binding treaty concluded last week, there were lingering questions crying out for answers: how realistic is the proposal in the face of implicit opposition from US and Israel? Is the proposal still in the realm of political fantasy?

Expressing confidence in the ongoing negotiations, Emad Kiyaei, Director at the Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO) and a former director at American-Iranian Council, told IPS, a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone (WMD-Free Zone) in the Middle East is far from being a fantasy- and is based on the goodwill of the states from within the region to reach an agreement.

Last week's conference, he said, was "a positive step forward and the states in the (committee) room were showing more flexibility and constructive discourse that we have witnessed in decades on this issue."

He pointed out that the danger of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East shows that business cannot continue as usual.

"It is a real threat, however, and this threat is further exacerbated by the global nuclear weapons states that have used the Middle East in their power games and scapegoated in not reaching a final document at the 2015 NPT Review Conference."

He said the states from within the region understand the gravity of the threat and the need for a comprehensive process that reduces tensions and serves as a starting point for an inclusive discussion in goodwill.

The United Nations says it has been working to eliminate nuclear weapons, including through the?Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), as well as the?Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the?Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), both of which are yet to enter into force.

Dr Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and author of "Unfinished Business" on multilateral negotiations, told IPS: "The stakes for international as well as regional security could not be higher."

"Ending weapons of mass destruction possession and use in the Middle East has to be a vital priority for everyone."

"It's helpful that most of the P5 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the UK, US, France, China and Russia) — and relevant states of the region attended the UN Conference — but very worrying that the United States and Israel decided to boycott," she said.

"They behave as if they want to keep at least nuclear weapons and freedom of action for the foreseeable future. That's a dangerous position to take, particularly after Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the JCPOA (2015 nuclear restraint agreement with Iran), which has reopened the door for Tehran to accelerate its nuclear production programmes, including uranium enrichment."

Last week's conference "was very limited in what it can accomplish in a week. What will it take to restore the JCPOA and bring Israel and the US to the table?"

"Politics is of course key here", declared Dr Johnson.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed "the successful conclusion of the Conference" and congratulated the participating States, in particular on the adoption of a Political Declaration, and supported their continuing efforts to pursue, in an open and inclusive manner, the establishment of a Nuclear-Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the region.

Currently, there are five regional nuclear-weapon-free-zones — in Latin America and the Caribbean; Africa; Central Asia; Southeast Asia; and the South Pacific.

According to the United Nations, treaties covering those States are: African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba); South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga); Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (Treaty of Bangkok); Treaty on a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Central Asia (Semipalatinsk Treaty); and, the first ever such zone, the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco).

The world's five declared nuclear powers are the P5 in the UN Security Council while the four undeclared nuclear powers are India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

But there are at least three countries in the region—Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—harbouring intentions of going nuclear perhaps in a distant future.

Asked about the progress made so far, Kiyaei said since 2016, civil society in the region has been working with states from within the region and the international community to draw attention to the fact that the most important component missing was the belief that such a zone is possible and the goodwill needed to sustain this process.

The Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO) with international experts has issued a draft treaty text that shows several possibilities to move forward if only the states want to achieve the zone, instead of using this topic to bash each other for short-term political points, he added.

"We have noticed a change of language that was shown even in the UN Resolution that was adopted for an annual conference on the WMD Free Zone. This is a rare opportunity whereby the conference on the zone is initiated and led by states within the Middle East, while the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (minus the United States) serve as observers", said Kiyaei, co-author of "Weapons of Mass Destruction: A new approach to non-proliferation" (Brookings Institution and Chatham House).

Dr Johnson said: "The main diplomatic challenge is to take forward a positive process that engages positively with the existing treaty regimes covering all types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)."

At a minimum, it would have been important for the November Conference to commit to holding a follow up conference under UN General Assembly auspices.

"They should also consider what positive initiatives can be taken to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Conference in 2020, especially in light of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East and the failure to hold the 2012 Conference that was agreed in 2010."

"I've been talking with various regional and P5 states about what diplomatic initiatives could be practical to propose in 2020, but let's see first how last week's UN Conference has progressed."

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the UN General Assembly, warned delegates about the continued existence of more than 15,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled around the world, "and any use of these weapons would be a humanitarian and ecological catastrophe, causing irreplaceable damage."

Although nuclear weapons have only been used once in history, the 1945 bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War attest to their devastation, he added.

Asked who the key non-starters are, Kiyaei said the United States and Israel decided not to participate in this year's conference, however, their absence in the room is not necessarily a bad thing at this moment as it allows the other states to have a constructive discussion to serve as a positive and crucial step towards a positive outcome.

"Having said that, we call on Israel to pay attention that with consensus on all final decisions on the WMD Free Zone treaty, it has nothing to lose by joining the process and everything to gain."

The US's stand is that the time is not right and the states in the region are not ready for disarmament. "We would like to remind that there is huge difference between disarmament and dismantlement-there is no such thing as not being ready for disarmament as disarmament begins with a conversation if there is goodwill".

The question is not readiness, wanting or not wanting—as Israel has on numerous times supported the establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East.

"It is time to start this discourse-just as it is time for the nuclear weapons states to dismantle their stockpiles based on a specific timeline," he declared.

– Inter Press Service

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