By Sharon Dolev, Emad Kiyaei, and Tony Robinson | Middle East Treaty Organization (METO)
The Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction (the November Conference) held its second meeting at UN headquarters from 29 November to 3 December 2021. This annual conference will be held until a legally binding treaty establishing a Middle East Zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDFZ or the Zone) has been negotiated on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region. Despite the absence of Israel and the United States at the conference and at an earlier session in 2019, this year’s meeting could lead to significant progress towards a WMDFZ, given recent changes in the Middle East security situation.
Those changes include the Abraham Accords formalising relations between Israel and four other countries of the proposed zone, the new government coalition in Israel, the changing US policy towards the Iran nuclear deal, the rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, and progress on Libyan peace talks. These events have improved the prospects for dialogue among key actors in the region.
A short background
Calls for the Middle East to become a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) go back to the 1970s. In 1995, states parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) adopted a resolution on the Middle East that inextricably linked the NPT’s indefinite extension with “utmost efforts” to establish “an effectively verifiable” WMDFZ. While NPT states parties have made the 1995 resolution on the Middle East a high priority in subsequent NPT review conferences, to date there has been little tangible progress on the Zone. This includes failed attempts to convene a conference on the Zone in 2012 and to reach consensus on a final declaration in the 2015 NPT Review Conference—primarily because global disarmament and Middle East zone commitments from earlier review conferences were not acted on in good faith.
The lack of progress—coupled with the fact that Israel, as a non-signatory to the NPT, has no obligation to attend the conference on the Zone within the NPT framework—is one reason that led to the adoption of a resolution in 2018 at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee, submitted by the Arab states, requesting the UN Secretary-General to convene a regional conference on the Zone by the end of 2019. Since this conference was established outside of the NPT process, Israel could feel more inclined to participate.
The first conference on the Zone was presided over by the Jordanian UN Ambassador Sima Bahous with facilitation by the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) from 18–22 November 2019. To the surprise of almost everybody following this process, participation in the conference was robust, with the presence of all 22 member states of the Arab League, Iran, four nuclear-armed states (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom), relevant international institutions, and a handful of civil society organisations.
The only states missing in the room among those invited were Israel and the United States, which remain attached to their insistence that the region is either “not ready” to discuss the Zone or that this initiative is simply anti-Israeli. One key feature of the conference, though, is that all decisions are made based on consensus. Therefore, Israel’s participation in the conference would enable its views to be aired and considered while having nothing to lose by virtue of the consensus-based decision-making process.
In 2019, participating states adopted a political statement that welcomed all initiatives and “recommendations on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.” This conference, therefore, presents an opportunity for all regional states to discuss, in good faith, the path forward towards the Zone and, through it, the broader geopolitical challenges facing the region.
The 2021 November Conference
The second session of the Conference, scheduled for November 2020, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and instead was held from 29 November to 3 December 2021. At the opening session of the conference, under the presidency of Kuwait, Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi congratulated “Jordan for an excellent job done as the president of the first session by laying a solid foundation and generating commendable momentum for this process.” He reaffirmed that he is “fully committed to undertaking effort to continue to move the process forward in an open and inclusive approach.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres congratulated the participants for “continuing this important process,” adding that their “strong political will, together with the international community’s support, can transform the vision of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction into a reality.” Abdulla Shahid, current President of the UN General Assembly, then gave sobering remarks on the fact that “15,000 nuclear weapons remain within the stockpiles of states. Many naively assume that being in possession of these weapons makes them safer, when the actual result is the opposite.” He then added that “possession by one state incentivizes others to produce them, resulting in a security dilemma that threatens to envelop the entire world in a mushroom cloud.”
After the short opening session, the meeting continued behind closed doors. A few highlights from their opening remarks include the Jordanian delegation emphasising the importance of this “platform for contributing to the promotion of peace and security in the Middle East region and the world at large.” Morocco’s statement said, “The humanitarian consequences of the use of this type of weapon are undeniable, and the idea of this impact must mobilise us all to take the necessary steps to hasten the establishment of [the Zone].” The Qatari statement highlighted tangible and practical initiatives to strengthen the process, including intersessional “open-ended working groups to study and develop ideas about verification, control and inspection mechanisms; defining the elements of the treaty; the protocols to be attached and other issues that require study and dialogue.” The proposal goes further by seeking to “study the national needs and the required regional expertise and to consider setting up an intensive program to build national capacities to implement the commitments contained in such treaties.”
The atmosphere at the closing session of the conference was verging on the celebratory and full of hope, with closing remarks by participating states echoing the importance of this process. The Egyptian delegation set the tone by recognising the open space for dialogue through the “opportunity for everyone to express their views, availing an opportunity in the formal settings for each of you to be heard.” The Iranian delegation gave full support to the “adoption of several decisions during this session of the conference, including the adoption of the Rules of Procedure and establishing a working committee for the intersessional process that will support the effective and efficient procession of the conference,” while admitting that “the conference’s success will be in jeopardy as long as Israel refuses to participate while the US supports it and does not cooperate with the conference.” The Moroccan delegation, along with many others, emphasised the importance of flexibility shown by participating states in this process to adopt a “consensus-based approach and identify the points of convergence and bridge divergences through dialogue, diplomacy, flexibility and more political will and this, at the end, will be to the benefit of all peoples in our region.”
The final report was adopted by consensus on the last day of the conference. The key features of the report include agreement on the Rules of Procedure, thematic areas, and continuing the discussion through intersessional meetings. These intersessional meetings are aimed at bringing technical and diplomatic experts together between each annual conference to develop ideas, policies, and technical solutions to an array of issues. The thematic areas to be discussed during the intersessional meetings and at the subsequent conference include but are not limited to: Principles and objectives; Core obligations related to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, including verification; Transparency and security through implementation of the treaty; Definitions, clarifications, consultations and cooperation; Peaceful uses and international cooperation; Institutional arrangements, entry into force and dispute settlement; Protocols including security assurances; and other relevant issues.
In the words of the Palestinian delegation in its closing remarks, “We are today one step closer on the long path towards the objective of ridding our region of all weapons of mass destruction.”
Civil society and the conference
Due to COVID-19 restrictions at the UN Headquarters, civil society organisations (CSO) were unable to access the building. Few CSOs were granted official accreditation to the November Conference following the decision on the first day by the participating states at the conference. The six accredited CSOs included the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and Western States Legal Foundation
This conference, just as the conference in 2019, was a critically important landmark on the way to the realization of the Zone. While the US position on this initiative is that the time is not ripe and states in the region are not ready for disarmament, states from the Middle East sat in the centre of the room, with four nuclear-armed states and international organisations in the seats reserved for observers, holding a discussion primarily in Arabic (the most widely spoken language of the Middle East) with leadership from within the region, discussing the path to a WMD free zone in the Middle East in a constructive and flexible way. While Israel’s seat remained empty, it is important to remember that it is a rare opportunity for Middle East states to not allow one state to paralyse progress simply by being absent. In this long but crucial process, it is hoped that Israel will join in the future with good will and in a constructive spirit.
The decision of states to establish a Working Committee to continue deliberations during the Intersessional Period of the Conference is an encouragement for CSOs to continue their work.
The Zone and the upcoming 2022 NPT Review Conference
The 1995 resolution on the Middle East linked the extension and the integrity of the NPT to the Zone. During the final days of the most recent NPT Review Conference in 2015, the five nuclear-armed states diverted attention from their failure to make progress on their own commitments to disarm, or even suggest a timeline for doing so by trying instead to “solve” the issues facing the Middle East. Their bad-faith maneuver was to use the lack of progress on the Middle East WMDFZ as a scapegoat for failure to reach a final document. The upcoming 2022 NPT Review Conference will probably suffer from the same lack of commitment from the nuclear-armed states—but this time there will be growing pressure from states and CSOs advocating for nuclear disarmament, and especially for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
At the 2022 Review Conference, states must show more responsibility during their deliberations and in the drafting of their final document.
Placing the blame for any failure of the review conference, yet again, on the Middle East, might force some states in the region to react negatively (particularly at this sensitive time of negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA). This reaction can manifest in multiple ways, from the possibility of some states leaving the NPT, to growing military threats, to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and beyond. Furthermore, since Israel is not party to the NPT, emphasising a decision from the conference that singles out Israel, a state that has no legal commitment to the NPT, is the opposite of good faith and distracts from finding ways to bring Israel to the table in good faith.
The UN General Assembly resolution on the Zone from 2018 should be welcomed and NPT states parties should acknowledge that the resolution is being implemented through the November Conference and the intersessional work. States of the proposed zone, likewise, should report on the positive news emerging from the November Conference in their statements to the NPT Review Conference.
The so-called superpowers have exploited the Middle East for centuries, and it is time for the states of the region to lead the conversation on the Zone. Instead of using the Middle East, the nuclear-armed states should lead by example and act on their own disarmament obligations. All states parties to the NPT must protect this precious November Conference process and let it take its course with as little interference as possible.
The Middle East Treaty Organization (METO) was founded in 2017 by civil society activists and analysts from the region, to show the possibilities and practicalities of such a WMD-free zone and engage with all relevant governments and institutions to take these important disarmament commitments forward. Building on previous treaties, METO is engaged with a growing network of regional and international experts, activists, and governments in discussions on elements for a draft treaty—what needs to be covered and how the Zone could work. The Draft Treaty is a work in progress, to inspire, challenge, and engage everyone who is concerned about peace and security.