The 2012 Middle East Conference: Are we there yet?

By Dr. Chen Kane

The Finnish Undersecretary of State Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, also the current Facilitator of the 2012 Middle East Conference, presented his interim report on May 8, 2012 to the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom). It was Laajava’s first official statement since he was nominated to convene the 2012 Middle East Conference.

It should come as no surprise to those who heard him last month, and followed his extensive visits to the region, that he is struggling to secure agreement by the major regional players to participate in the conference, let alone agree to an agenda or desired outcome for the conference.

For those who have not followed the 2012 Conference saga on a daily basis, Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova and I prepared for CNS a “Questions and Answers” document highlighting important details about the 2012 Conference (see below).

I must say I admire the courageous decision of Ambassador Laajava to become the facilitator. It is a thankless job in the midst of an unforgiving region. Laajava is about to start with additional rounds in the region to try to get an agreement on the agenda, the desired outcome, exact timing, and the participants of the conference.

Here are few ideas that could be helpful for his consultation and planning the event:

* Countries in the region have not met for over 15 years (since ACRS), and some of them did not show up or were not invited to ACRS in the 1990s (Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon). There is a great deal of diplomatic steam that needs to be released. States will need time to give “national” statements and speak about their concerns, and threat perceptions. This is crucial – if they don’t do this at the beginning of the conference, they will do it throughout the meeting, and that is bad.

* While countries in the region may not be willing to work together cooperatively right now, they may be willing to take unilateral steps that enhance regional security.

* It would be best to start with the technical issues, the region is not ready to solve the political-strategic issues yet, especially since governments among the major regional players are still being formed, or domestically challenged.

* Civil society and youth have a role to play, as they are much more willing to generate and openly express innovative ideas. Given current events in the region, these groups cannot be ignored by the newly established authorities.

FAQ: The 2012 Middle East Conference

Q. What is the 2012 Conference?

A. The 2010 NPT Review Conference adopted a consensus document containing an Action Plan for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. In the consensus document, the states agreed to convene a conference in 2012 “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states” and to appoint, in consultation with the states of the region, a facilitator.

Q. What Is the Facilitator Role?

A. In October 2011, Finland was designated as the host country for the 2012 Middle East Conference, and the Finnish Undersecretary of State Ambassador Jaakko Laajava named as the Facilitator. The facilitator was asked in the 2010 NPT final document to conduct consultations and undertake preparations for the convening of the 2012 conference to support implementation of the 1995 Middle East Resolution. He was also tasked with assisting “in implementing follow-on steps agreed at the 2012 conference” and reporting to the NPT 2015 Review Conference and its Preparatory Committee meetings.

Ambassador Laajava reported on the progress of his efforts at the 2012 PrepCom. Since his appointment, he has conducted over 100 consultations with states in the Middle East, NPT depositaries and co-sponsors of the 1995 Middle East Resolution (Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), international organizations, and civil society. According to the facilitator’s report, these consultations covered issues ranging from the scope and parameters of the future zone to verification to regional security environment. The facilitator noted that all states in the region “share the goal of establishing a zone” and many emphasize that the process is a unique opportunity to foster cooperation in the region on this matter.

Q. What Are the Next Steps and Challenges to Holding the 2012 Conference?

A. Issues that need to be agreed upon for the conference to take place include the conference agenda, desired outcome, exact timing, and participation. States so far have had divergent views about the possible agenda and what the conference should accomplish. The Arab states are anxious to see the 2012 Conference take place as a first step towards negotiations on WMDFZ in the region and implementation of the 1995 Middle East resolution. Therefore, they would like the conference to establish a formal process. Israel, however, is concerned that such a conference might lead to a “slippery slope” of negotiations on a zone, while the regional conditions Israel deems as necessary for a regional process (peaceful relations and reconciliation among all states in the region) are not present. Some officials from the NPT depositary states have mentioned a preference for a short high-level meeting, cautiously setting the expectations low.

Participation in the conference by all relevant states is particularly important, and there are still doubts about the attendance by Israel, Iran, and Syria. After the 2010 NPT Review Conference, Israel stated that the consensus document ignores the realities of the Middle East and that as a non-signatory to the NPT, Israel is not obligated to follow the decisions of the review conference. Subsequently, however, Israel has signaled some flexibility and engaged in consultations on the appointment of the facilitator, and later with the facilitator himself. Somewhat paradoxically, Iran also expressed a view that Israel should not be present at an NPT-mandated conference. At the 2012 NPT PrepCom session, Iran stated that the conference is “subsidiary” to the NPT process and should follow NPT procedures, which would suggest that only regional states parties to the NPT can fully participate in the 2012 Conference. Iran did not participate in the IAEA forum on a nuclear-weapon-free zone for the Middle East in November 2011, raising questions about the implications for the 2012 Conference. So far, however, none of the relevant states has definitely refused to attend the Conference.

Q. What Might Happen If the 2012 Conference is Delayed? What Would Be the Impact of It Not Being Held at All?

A. In addition to divergent views about the possible agenda and what the conference should accomplish, further factors that complicate the convening of the conference are the Arab Spring of 2011 and the accompanying political turmoil throughout the region. Ultimately, it may not prove feasible to convene the conference in 2012 or with the participation of all the relevant states.

Should a conference not take place at all, there is a concern that the 2015 NPT Review Conference will end without a consensus. Additionally, as part of the push to convene the conference, some Arab states have threatened, implicitly and explicitly, to reconsider their NPT membership if the 2012 Conference does not take place.

Q. Are There Any Other Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zones?

A. There is no precedent to a geographical zone that declared itself as free of all weapons of mass destruction (namely nuclear, chemical and biological). There are currently five nuclear weapons free zones (NWFZs): in Latin America (Treaty of Tlatelolco), South Pacific (Treaty of Rarotonga), Southeast Asia (Treaty of Bangkok), Africa (Treaty of Pelindaba), and Central Asia. In addition, Mongolia has a special internationally recognized nuclear-weapon-free status, and the Treaty of Antarctica prohibits any military use of the continent, including nuclear. Nuclear-weapon-free zones cover the entire Southern Hemisphere, while the Central Asian NWFZ is the only one located entirely in the Northern Hemisphere.

Q. What Are the Common Features of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones?

A. Nuclear-weapon-free zones are established by legally-binding, negotiated instruments. According to the UN guidelines, all NWFZ treaties must be concluded “on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by states in the region concerned.”

NWFZ treaties prohibit their parties from the production, acquisition, stationing, or control over nuclear weapons, and also ban nuclear testing on their territories. The Treaty of Pelindaba explicitly prohibits nuclear weapons research and mandates the dismantlement of pre-existing nuclear weapons capabilities. All NWFZs require at a minimum verification through the IAEA safeguards, and the Central Asian NWFZ requires each of its members to implement an Additional Protocol to their comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, giving the agency added inspection authorities. Some of the NWFZ treaties require member states to implement physical protection measures in accordance with the IAEA standards, and all except the Treaty of Tlatelolco have provisions regarding nuclear export controls. The treaties of Rarotonga, Pelindaba, and Bangkok prohibit sales of nuclear equipment or materials to states that do not accept IAEA safeguards on all of their nuclear activities. The Central Asian NWFZ treaty requires both comprehensive safeguards and an Additional Protocol as condition of supply of nuclear materials and equipment.

All NWFZ treaties have protocols that provide negative security assurances, to be ratified by the states recognized as “official” nuclear weapon states under the NPT. Under the protocols, these states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) commit not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against members of such zones. At present, only the protocol to the Treaty of Tlatelolco has been ratified by all five nuclear-weapon states.

Photo: Ronald Zak, AP