Civil Society Engagement in Middle East Arms Control

By Ala’ A. Alrababa’h and Naomi Egel – This article serves as an overview of civil society organizations (CSOs) currently involved in arms control, regional security, and nonproliferation issues in the Middle East. The importance of the role of regional CSOs in such areas cannot be overstated and will continue to grow given the deadlock in multilateral negotiations at the official level. 

The CSOs

The Middle East Scientific Institute for Security (MESIS)[i] emphasizes capacity-building and disseminating information to a broad audience. MESIS focuses primarily on promoting energy, environmental and border security using science and technology, but much of its work in these areas is connected to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). MESIS has conducted several workshops and meetings for government officials and scientific and technological experts. These workshops attempt to develop the technical capabilities necessary to implement a WMD-free zone. MESIS’ Radiation Measurements Cross-Calibration Project focuses on improving and standardizing nuclear monitoring and measuring capabilities and, to this end, MESIS held six workshops between 2004 and 2010 to develop a set of internationally recognized standards for laboratory radiation. MESIS also held a workshop entitled ‘Practical Concepts for Safe Disposal of Low-Level Radioactive Waste in Arid Settings’ in 2008 in conjunction with the IAEA.[ii] The workshop was designed for waste management professionals from Iraq and Jordan, but a representative of the Iraqi Prime Minister also attended the workshop. Other MESIS projects have included technology demonstrations and emergency preparedness meetings.

Other CSOs, like the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support (SCWVS)[iii] and the Organisation for Defending Victims of Chemical Weapons (ODVCW)[iv], focus on publicizing the human cost of WMD. These two CSOs, both based in Iran, seek to publicize the damage done by the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. In 2008, SCWVS presented a display at the Second Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention (the only CSO to do so). ODVCW holds an annual general meeting for its members. Also, ODVCW often meets with Iranian government officials as well as with other organizations that focus on chemical weapons Additionally, they frequently release statements and reports which detail the effects of chemical weapons use through personal anecdotes and hold memorials for victims of chemical warfare.

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)[v] has several affiliates in the Middle East. Palestinian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War focuses on raising awareness regarding the dangers of nuclear war and of Israel’s nuclear program, while Physicians for Peace and Preservation of the Environment (Israel) tries to encourage Israel to join disarmament agreements. It also supports all regional peace talks, WMD-related or not, as steps towards creating a WMDFZ in the Middle East. Physicians for Social Responsibility- Iran, partners with the Tehran Peace Museum to create a network of doctors, medical students, health workers, and concerned citizens. They try to promote a culture of peace by raising awareness of the consequences of WMD. They host seminars, meetings and exhibitions, and use the media to publicize their message. They also work to create an international network of physicians and scientists to help survivors of chemical weapons attacks. In addition, like other Iranian CSOs listed previously, they promote knowledge and education related to the connection between war and public health, and highlight the effects of chemical weapons use during the Iran-Iraq war.

The Israeli Disarmament Movement[vi] began as a Greenpeace project in 2007, but exists independently today. It works primarily as an advocacy group, promoting anti-nuclear discourse in Israel as well as Israeli participation in disarmament and nonproliferation negotiations and discussions at the international level. Led by Sharon Dolev, it runs an independent radio program in Israel that focuses on WMD, missiles and disarmament. On August 6, 2012, the anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, the Israeli Disarmament Movement held a protest against an Israeli strike on Iran.

The Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar[vii] conducted a research project entitled “The Nuclear Question in the Middle East” from May 2010 to January 2011, and published its conclusions in a report issued in 2012. Members of the working group were affiliated with a variety of universities and think tanks in several Gulf states, as well as Egypt, France, Australia and the USA. The Center also focuses on educational outreach to students: it hosts presentations by regional experts on WMD and in March 2012 conducted a WMD awareness workshop for university students.

The Arab Institute for Security Studies (ACSIS)[viii] in Amman, Jordan works with local, regional and international organizations to analyze and disseminate information related to nuclear weapons and regional security. ACSIS has held several conferences and workshops, including a regional biosecurity conference in 2008, a conference on “Nuclear Energy Proliferation and Security in the Middle East” in 2009, a workshop entitled “Beyond the 2010 Review Conference: Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Security” in 2010 and a workshop on “Laying the Grounds for 2012: Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Security” in 2011. These conferences and workshops have brought together governmental and non-governmental participants both from the region and internationally. ACSIS also hosts a radioactive detection facility which monitors gamma radiation and has labs for chemical analysis. In addition, ACSIS started the Amman Framework to facilitate the establishment of the 2012 Conference on a WMDFZ in the Middle East. The Amman Framework created a “State of the Resolution Framework” mechanism to monitor the status of implementation of the 1995 NPT Review Conference Resolution on the Middle East and to support the outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Currently, ACSIS hosts a blog[ix] on the 2012 Middle East WMDFZ which publishes analyses by both ACSIS members and other nonproliferation and disarmament experts on this topic. Unfortunately, the blog does not seem to have been updated since 2011.

The Protection of Armaments and Consequences Organisation (PACO)[x] is based in Cairo, Egypt. The organization’s goal is to protect civilians against landmines and provide aid to victims of these weapons.[xi] Moreover, the organization works on banning weapons that can be used against civilians, including weapons of mass destruction. In 2005, it organized a workshop in Bahrain on the Mine Ban Treaty.[xii] The workshop was attended by journalists from the 5 GCC countries that have not ratified the treaty (only Qatar had ratified the treaty then, although Kuwait acceded to the treaty two years later). They also try to encourage Arab governments to abide by international laws related to the weapons use, and to accede to various treaties related to arms control. Additionally, PACO  translated to Arabic some of those international treaties.[xiii] 

Future steps to be taken by CSOs

There are a number of concrete steps that CSOs can take to facilitate the process of creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. A key step for CSOs is organization: forming coalitions and creating ties between different CSOs working on these issues. Since civil society engagement in disarmament matters is underdeveloped in the region as a whole, existing CSOs should focus on strengthening partnerships in order to stress to states parties and other stakeholders in the international community that CSO can play an effective role. Additionally, many CSOs work on similar projects and could learn from one another through joint capacity-building exercises, or could combine their resources for joint projects and public-awareness campaigns. A CSO coalition should begin by meeting regularly to discuss issues that are of paramount concern to civil society, in order to have topics ready to bring to the 2012 conference on a WMDFZ in the Middle East (especially since an agenda has not yet been set). Even if such a coalition or organization is not formed before this conference is held, it can still help CSOs identify issues to be put on the agenda at future conferences. CSOs like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which played a key role in garnering public support for the Mine Ban Treaty and drafting the actual text of the treaty itself, have been coalitions of many different CSOs under an umbrella name. Regional CSOs can also learn from the experience of Control Arms[xiv], a coalition of global CSOs that has been a main force behind the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This type of organization within CSOs shows states parties that CSOs are capable, dependable actors worth engaging with.

CSOs should also hold workshops and expert meetings to discuss the technical verification and disposal methods necessary to create a WMDFZ. The Middle East is different from the various NWFZ that have been established. Israel has nuclear weapons, Iran’s nuclear program is controversial, Syria possesses a large arsenal of chemical weapons, and several states in the region have not signed major WMD treaties (including the NPT, CWC, BWC and CTBT). The goal of these technical discussions and workshops should be to identify and subsequently establish the technical capabilities necessary to implement a WMDFZ, so that once the political capabilities are in place, technical challenges will not hinder the implementation of a WMDFZ. The CTBTO serves as an excellent example: while the CTBT still needs to overcome significant political obstacles before entering into force, the CTBTO has the technical abilities to verify any nuclear testing. The technical tools produced by the CTBTO have also been used for several other purposes in the meantime. Moreover, the technical readiness of the CTBTO has strengthened the CTBT, even though it has not entered into force, in the eyes of the international community. CSOs like MESIS and the Amman Institute, which already conduct workshops and trainings for technical experts, could establish programs to work specifically on verification issues.

CSOs should also focus heavily on public engagement; coalition-building of a different nature than the organizational goals described above. This type of coalition-building should involve religious and community leaders, academia and government officials, amongst many other parties. Stronger coalitions would then create a greater impetus within states to engage in negotiations on the proposed zone and to work diligently towards achieving that goal. To this end, CSOs should hold workshops and conferences, preferably on a transnational scale, to raise awareness about WMD in the region and the negotiations for a WMDFZ. Due to their less formal nature, Track 1.5 and Track 2 diplomacy initiatives can often lead to action and change when more traditional Track 1 diplomacy fails to do so. These workshops should educate leaders in a variety of fields, who can then take their knowledge back to their respective communities and disseminate it to broader audiences. Holding these workshops on a transnational scale would allow for stakeholders to create new networks. This is especially true when certain actors cannot meet each other directly due to political tensions between their respective states. Political tensions between states may limit the variety of actors who would be permitted to attend these workshops and conferences in reality. Nonetheless, including many actors from a variety of states in the region must be stressed as a key goal in public engagement and building support. Despite the potential political challenges that might prevent participants from attending, it is important that workshops and conferences on this topic are held in region. After all, this is a regional issue that requires regional actors to resolve it. Holding events in Middle Eastern states will allow a greater number of participants to attend (due to financial and logistical issues) to attend than conferences held at traditional disarmament and nonproliferation venues in New York, Geneva or Vienna would allow. CSOs could also engage the broader public through holding workshops to educate citizens about various issues related to disarmament and arms control. This would start a culture of nonproliferation in the Middle East. Moreover, this would make it possible to hold petitions and public polls that show the demands of regular citizens to encourage arms control in the region. This could be used as a tool to lobby governments to engage in the process of arms control. The Arab uprisings have refocused attention on public opinion in governance and CSOs can play a key role in facilitating public engagement in negotiations and decision-making.

Ala’ A. Alrababa’h and Naomi Egel attend Dartmouth College and University of California at Berkeley, respectively. Egel and Alrababa’h completed research internships at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies during Summer 2012.