On Monday 14th November, the third session of the UN Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDFZ) kicked off with the usual round of opening statements in a general debate which started with the Presidency transferring from Kuwait to Lebanon and the competent hands of Ms. Jeanne Mrad, Charge d’Affairs of Lebanon, Deputy Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of Lebanon to the United Nations.

The context for this conference is that in 1995, all states parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty agreed by consensus to establish a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East in return for the Treaty itself, which was due to expire in 1995, being extended indefinitely. The problem with that resolution is that in 1995 not all states of the region were parties to the NPT. The Israeli government has neither signed nor ratified it and maintains a policy of ambiguity in which they neither confirm nor deny possession of nuclear weapons. Something which of course is no longer in doubt after the courageous efforts of Mordechai Vanunu who blew the whistle on the whole Israeli nuclear weapon programme back in the 1980s. Conditioning the NPT to establish a nuclear weapon free zone over a country that wasn’t even a state party was a highly doubtful strategy and has led to complete stagnation of the NPT process itself.

After four subsequent NPT Review Conferences (2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015) failed to move forward on the WMDFZ, Arab States took a proposal to the UN General Assembly in 2018 to start work on the text of a treaty. The resulting resolution gave birth to this annual conference to which 22 states of the Arab League, Iran and Israel are invited to participate and to which the five nuclear weapon states and permanent members of the UN Security Council are invited to observe. Despite the fact that neither the governments of Israel or the United States have participated in the two previous conferences, the process itself has seen progress. The first conference in 2019 gave birth to a political declaration agreed by the 23 countries by consensus and last year, in 2021, the conference adopted rules of procedure in which the principle of consensus in decision-making has been enshrined, thus allowing any country to insist on its concerns being addressed before signing up to the eventual treaty. This is the way to leave the door permanently open to the Israeli government to participate in the future without compromising national security.

The first speaker was the Japanese diplomat, Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs who set the scene referring to the war in Ukraine taking international tensions to unprecedented levels and the UN Charter facing its toughest test to date. Nakamitsu stressed three points in her intervention: the importance of the Iran nuclear deal and all states returning to compliance with it; the unacceptable use of chemical weapons and the importance of holding accountable those who use them, and; the importance of strengthening the Biological Weapon Convention whose own Review Conference is due to take place in Geneva between the 28th of November and the 16th of December this year.

Highlighting the positive

The most interesting thing about this conference has been the performance of the conference president, Ms. Jeanne Mrad. Time and time again, at the end of each national intervention, Mrad stressed the positive of the previous intervention, always thanking delegations for highlighting progress and efforts at dialogue.

Following interventions from states of the region, it was the turn of the invited observer states which included the Russian Federation, China, France and the United Kingdom.

The government of Russia started with their senior diplomat, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, who had flown in from Vienna for the meeting. It was interesting to note the importance that Russia places on this conference and the attitude that Russia comes to this conference with, one that seeks to support the work of the states and to offer help and guidance when asked. Ulyanov said, “Russia, as an observer, doesn’t believe it possible or appropriate to mentor participants in any way.”

China was up next with a similar message of support: “China calls on countries to abandon self-interest and ganging up to stir up confrontation and make practical contributions to regional security. Regional countries should feel more ownership and work to build collective security. Nuclear weapon states should participate in this process.”

So far, so good. Then came France which unleashed a barrage of criticism of Iran and Syria in a tone that was patronising and arrogant, as the former colonial power that they are.

This led this President to gently rebuke, “We call on observers to be messengers of peace and convince member states that are hesitant to come to participate actively in this process.”

Then came the UK who, in comparison to the senior diplomat from the Russian Federation, chose to send possibly their most junior diplomat in the mission with a statement that was laden with rhetoric and oozing even more arrogance than the French!

This turned out to be the final straw for Ms Mrad who then made the following intervention, which although not a word for word transcription, conveys the key points and ideas transmitted.

“Since following this process in Vienna, I have noticed that—in my young career experience, 25 years, young compared to others—this speech of ping-pong, naming and shaming hasn’t produced anything so far. Has it served the purpose of attaining the goal that we are here to attain? Do we have to stand in two camps, calling the other people names, on and on? It’s easy to list the problems, but is this speech serving the process? We’re trying as much as we can to project a spirit of constructiveness and bring value to every session. We know the process is long. Achievements are not around the corner, but we need to change something: the speech, the attitude, the approach. We know the concerns already, talking about them is redundant. We can repeat them for years, but this will not achieve anything. Look who’s saying this! A Lebanese diplomat, with all the restrictions we have, but we believe in the process. I’m trying to convey a message. We overcame a lot by signing our maritime agreement,[1] we overcame our difficulties, and it’s high time for the whole community to try to look at this matter in a different way, bringing our concerns in order to address them constructively. This is what I’d like to say at this stage. It’s not a lecture, but it does come from the bottom of my heart.”

Many of the NGO representatives in the room broke into spontaneous applause. It is the most refreshing thing seen in a UN conference since the adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017.

Later on, after Syria replied to the statements of the UK and France, the chair once again intervened with a similarly impassioned statement: “I call upon all of us to embrace positivity to try and take a step forward.”

This conference is facing incredible obstacles. All the points raised by all the delegations and criticisms of other states are valid. The governments of many countries have done many bad things in recent history, but raking over them time and time again in these forums and justifying non-action on the basis of this is no way to make progress.

Hopefully this refreshing approach by the Lebanese president of the conference will open the way for the delegates, the vast majority of whom are men, to reach an even better outcome for this third conference. We wait for the results of the final session on Friday.

[1] Lebanon and Israel whose diplomats are not even allowed to talk to each other at the United Nations have reached an agreement on a maritime border which unfortunately opens the way for more fossil fuel consumption by opening gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean.