As the Helsinki conference on the Establishment of a Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East failed to materialise, civil society organisations gathered to express their frustration and try to channel it in a positive direction.  Here Xanthe Hall of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) recounts the experience.  This blog is reproduced with permission from the author and the original posting may be found here.

In Helsinki at this time of year, the sun rises just after 9am and sets again at 3pm. Our Finnish hosts told us that we were lucky that the snow had come already, to lighten up the all-pervading darkness by reflecting what little light there is. Already, after only a short time, the snow was very deep, much of it shovelled up by bulldozers to form piles shoulder high by the side of the road. There was something magic about it, like we were somehow closer to Christmas by being there. Indeed, Christmas filled all the restaurants and bars with office parties, people drunkenly swaying arm in arm on the street, or singing to the stars.

Snowy Helsinki should have been the setting for an historic conference to discuss the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The date was set for today, December 17th, to begin perhaps one of the most important negotiations for peace and security in the Middle East. But the conference rooms remain empty, because the governments did not come.

Instead, about forty representatives of NGOs from around the world were in Helsinki from December 14 to 16 to talk about “The Middle East without Weapons of Mass Destruction – Civil Society Input – The Way Forward” at a conference organised by Finnish peace groups. Angry and frustrated at what some perceived as an indefinite postponement of the UN conference, although the official wording was a “readjustment of timing”, the participants sought to find innovative ways to put pressure on governments to convene the conference as soon as possible.

Ambassador Mohamed Shaker from the Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFA), author of the seminal work on the negotiation of the NPT, was first up to talk to the conference. He was unable to stay for the whole conference because he had to go back to Egypt to vote on the new constitution, reminding us of the volatile context that provides a background to our deliberations. ECFA issued a statement criticising the conference’s postponement, stating that the reasons given for it – that the current situation in the Middle East and the fact that the regional parties did not reach an agreement on the conditions did not enable the conference to go ahead – were the same reasons why the conference should, in fact, be held. Particularly in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Gaza, the ongoing conflict on Iran’s programme and the threat of war on Iran, it is crucial that at least preparatory work begin on a zone. At such a meeting it would be important to think aloud about who should be in the region, e.g. is Turkey in or out? Should radiological weapons be included and should delivery systems, such as missiles, also be banned? There are already many existing legal instruments that would be helpful for such a zone if all the countries in the region were to adhere to them: the Comprehensive Test Ban, Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the Pelindaba Treaty, Resolution 1540, the Additional Protocol of the NPT, etc. Specific security assurances need to be developed for the region ensuring that no one country would use WMD or nuclear weapons against another. The goal of the conference would be to agree what machinery would be needed in order to establish such a zone. But even if the countries in the region only sat down together at a table it would generate confidence and make people in the region feel less threatened.

The main question that arose repeatedly throughout the conference was not, however, what such a conference should discuss but how it can take place at all. Some participants believed that Israel never intended to take part in it. Issam Makhoul, a former Knesset member, said that it was not an issue of mechanisms but one of getting the convenors to distance themselves from the position of Israel. “The United States is not part of the solution, but part of the problem by supporting Israel’s rejectionist policies”, Makhoul said. He contends that Israel’s policy of nuclear denial consolidates its refusal to engage in a political process and that the contention that an Iranian nuclear bomb would threaten Israel’s very existence is a lie. In his eyes, the real problem is that an Iranian nuclear option threatens Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region. Makhoul proposed “If Israel does not come to Helsinki, then it is the job of progressive Israelis to bring Helsinki to Israel” and therefore he and others are establishing an Israeli movement for a WMD free zone and will meet to discuss this in Haifa in March 2013.

Mohssen Massarat, a German-Iranian academic and spokesperson for the civil society project for a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East, thinks that US hegemonial policies underly the blocking of the conference which would – if it went ahead – prevent war and provide more security for Israel. This view was shared by Bahman Assad, an American-Iranian with the US Peace Council, who believes that the US is still pursuing regime change in Iran and that “two nuclear weapon states are threatening a non-nuclear weapons state with war”.

These opening remarks by the participants from the Middle East echoed the depth of anger felt in the room about the postponement of the conference and the fear that nothing more would now stand in the way of an inevitable war on Iran. And yet, after this first display of deep frustration, the conference went on to calmly discuss what was to be done in an atmosphere of trust und mutual cooperation. A balanced resolution was drafted and adopted by consensus to be presented first to the Finnish Foreign Minister Tuomijola in the final plenary of the conference and then to be sent to three parties: the Convenors of the conference (US, UK, Russia and the UN Secretary-General), the states of the region and civil society. Each of the addressed groups is asked specifically to do something to enable the conference to be successfully convened. The NGO conference also adopted an action plan which still looked a bit sketchy but everyone was willing to continue to flesh it out.

Nicholas Taylor, an Australian academic who helped organised the Athens Dialogue, pointed out that it gets forgotten that although states make agreements, civil society generally pushes the states to the negotiating table. Susi Snyder, a policy expert from IKV/pax christi Netherlands, called on participants to think about creating more incentives for people in the region to support a zone by emphasising how it would benefit human security. Apart from action to ensure that the conference takes place, it was generally felt that international civil society’s main contribution was to encourage and support more cooperative projects within the region that would bring together ethnic groups and nationalities. “Rock against Rockets”, an idea for rock concerts on shared borders, could get people dancing together, but also projects on water, energy and social needs were seen as important.

Nasser Burdestani, ICAN campaigner from Bahrain, energised all the conference participants with his reporting on work in the region on abolishing nuclear weapons. ICAN Middle East campaigners translate campaign materials into Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi. The ICAN Facebook page in Arabic has already 48,000 likes, although the subject was hardly ever discussed by the general public in the region before except in the context of Iran. The conference took this idea up and decided to make all publications on the WMD free zone available online in the languages of the region.

Erkki Tuomija, the Finnish Foreign Minister, ended the conference by telling us all how crucial civil society’s engagement is for disarmament and a safer world and how grateful the conference’s facilitator Jaakko Laajava is for all the many contributions and events organised so far. In his opinion, we have never been closer to getting a WMD free zone in the Middle East as we are now. Nevertheless, for most of us, the dream of a Middle East without weapons of mass destruction will still seem impossibly out of reach until the political will is created to actually set a date and send out invitations to a conference in Helsinki in the very near future that all states of the region agree to attend. On the other hand, if they don’t, the future looks very grim indeed.