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Commentary | 15 February 2013

Speech to the ELN on prospects and challenges for the future of the conference on WMD Free Zone in the Middle East

Image of Jaakko Laajava

Jaakko Laajava |Former Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Security Policy and Facilitator of the WMDFZ in the Middle East

Middle East Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Security WMDs Global Security

Speech to a ELN Working Meeting held in London, November 2012.


While international security and stability are today challenged by a multitude of phenomena, one can hardly think of a scarier scenario than the prospect of significant proliferation of WMD and the risk of these weapons getting into the hands of irresponsible non-state actors. This risk was identified a long time ago but efficient means to eliminate it entirely do not really exist and it is hard to imagine any other region in the world where the risks of proliferation and even dangers of these weapons’ actual use could be bigger than in the region of the Middle East. An idea which emanated in the 1970s, to rid the region permanently of these weapons, has therefore recently gained increasing attention. Could it provide an avenue for the future?


Justified Scepticism?
For a long time, the idea remained dormant. Of course, it was a typical Cold War era proposal. And indeed, to many, it appears totally unrealistic even today, as a pipe dream.

There are certainly good reasons to remain sceptical.

Nevertheless, important developments have of course taken place since the 1970s.

In 1995, when the NPT was extended indefinitely, a special resolution on the Middle East was passed, on the initiative of the depositary governments of Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It called for the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

Fifteen years later, an action plan to implement the 1995 ideas was adopted at the 2010 NPT review conference.

According to this plan, the UN Secretary General (SG) and the three depositary governments, Russia, the UK and the US, will convene, in 2012, a conference on the establishment of a ME zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, to be attended by all States of the region, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region. That conference, is to be fully supported by the nuclear-weapon states.

I was appointed as the facilitator to advance these goals by the SG of the UN a year ago. Finland was selected as the host government. Since then, my team and I have conducted some 140-150 different meetings with relevant governments, both inside and outside the region, with international organisations and parliaments, with academia, think tanks and civil society.

As a result, the general awareness and the overall knowledge regarding these issues has greatly improved, particularly in the countries of the region. People are beginning to seriously contemplate the opportunities offered by this initiative. Yet, there is a long way to go.


The Prospects
No doubt, this is a very complex and difficult undertaking. It is a longer-term vision, not something that can be done right away.

And viewed in a larger perspective, the success or failure of this endeavour could have far-reaching implications for the entire credibility of the NPT.

We adopted a very active role and started our deliberations with the region’s interlocutors with some fundamental thoughts regarding the Middle East and its role in the world.

We have made an effort to create a more open attitude in the region towards such an initiative and put it in a wider context.

In our contacts, we have emphasized the fundamental fact that the world today no longer is divided by ideological fault lines and permanently stuck in a zero-sum mentality.

On the contrary, our world today is much more open, a world of globalization and emerging economies, a world of increasing mutual interconnectedness. It is a world requiring cooperation by all in order to address the many new global challenges to our security and well-being; it is a world of global competition, it is a world where one must seek win-win solutions rather than win-lose outcomes. It is a world where military power alone cannot produce security and stability.

And we have tried to say to our interlocutors in the region that there is an urgent need to address the issue of how to improve the region’s security and stability, also through other means than military.

The very basic idea of a zone free of WMD is of course easy to understand but is much more complicated to achieve at least in a short period of time. To establish such a zone would be a massively complicated issue, even technically very demanding. Luckily, there is quite a bit of expert work already available regarding the theme. There is no lack of interesting ideas.

Of course, one would first think that the whole thing is just not doable in this volatile region. However, there are some positive points of convergence to start with.

In fact, all States of the region have shared the vision of a WMD free Middle East in many joint documents and statements which they have adopted, including in the final documents from the meetings of the Mediterranean union – and in many other places, within the United Nations, and elsewhere.

Although important differences prevail, this is a promising starting point. All states also agree that such a goal is a long-term thing that cannot be achieved overnight. We must be talking about a process, not just about one Conference of a limited duration.

But there are some fundamental differences as well.


The Way Forward
Some see that there first must be comprehensive peace before any arms control can be contemplated.

Others would insist that it is the other way around: there first has to be disarmament and then one can talk about peace.

In my view, arms control cannot be achieved in a vacuum. It requires a tremendous amount of excellent cooperation between the parties.

Such cooperation, in turn, is only possible if there is a sufficient amount of mutual trust and confidence among the parties.

This brings me to a very central point of departure. I can only envision a conference where we recognize the fundamental intertwined nature of progress in arms control, i.e. advances towards the zone, and progress on the more political level of confidence-building and dialogue regarding important security concerns in the region.

This was and still is the starting point of the facilitator’s work regarding the task ahead. We have correspondingly conveyed our ideas regarding the details of the Conference to the States of the region.

We have also suggested that the Conference itself would be a relatively brief, non-dramatic event with the aim of reaffirming the common objective for the project, deciding about follow-up steps. It would be important that the parties would use the conference to demonstrate that they are ready and willing to engage, to embark upon inclusive, substantive and goal-orientated cooperation in the relevant areas.

The follow-up should include substantial and parallel work on all aspects of the agenda as well as the necessary coordination. The follow-up mechanism would provide an important vehicle for dialogue and cooperation regarding these issues and could – depending on the will of the participants – gradually evolve into a more comprehensive framework for efforts to improve security and stability in the whole region.

The proposed conference would indeed be about the future, not about the past. It would address all aspects of WMD and their proliferation in the Middle East, and provide a forum for security dialogue in this region.

In my understanding, such a balanced way forward would provide important possibilities for all sides to advance their ideas regarding the best ways to promote security and stability in the Middle East.

I am a hard-nosed realist and I have no illusions. When I speak about the prospects I am not blind. The situation on the ground is extremely worrisome as we all can see every day when we switch on our TV sets for the evening news.

I have listened to many partners in the region and their immediate security concerns. The on-going societal transformation in the region further feeds feelings of insecurity.

I also know full well that there is the heavy baggage of unsuccessful endeavours in the past. Risks are indeed many, success stories are very few.

And let’s be realistic: it is a lot to ask from the governments of the region that they should come together and start a process of this kind, touching upon their important security interests.

We need political courage and farsightedness from the region’s leaders.

Participants should be ready to seek solutions acceptable for all, in a spirit of mutual respect. They should recognize that everyone’s contribution will be important. The Conference could not succeed if it were used only for propagandistic purposes.

The Conveners meet almost on a weekly basis to assess progress. The group of UN, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States has been remarkably unified so far. This has greatly helped my task. But differences do of course exist, and there are important national objectives and interests in play as well.

As to the timing, the plan has been so far that the Conference will take place in 2012. In practice, this has meant December. It is now mid-November, and there is a concern that the time available in 2012 might not be sufficient to prepare a successful Conference with the participation of all States of the region.

We need, therefore, to consider what additional methods can be employed in order to intensify the consultative work needed. One idea that has been floated is to extend the consultations that so far have taken place on a bilateral basis, to a multilateral level and invite all prospective members of the Conference to participate in them. The purpose of such consultations attended by all would be to register the collective agreement of the participants as to the important questions regarding the Conference and the way to proceed.

While the Conveners and the Facilitator must do their part, this is in the first place a Conference for the region and by the region. The primary responsibility rests of course with the States of the region themselves. Any change should therefore emanate from the region itself.

I see my task as trying to open avenues, open perspectives, open opportunities and not close them down. I do understand that there are enormous hurdles and difficulties ahead. And one must avoid illusions. But at the same time, I would like to encourage people to see the forest and not only the trees, to be able to identify the potential of this endeavour, and try to work for the future while not ignoring the realities and limitations of today.

All Europeans would have much to gain from an improved regional security dialogue in the Middle East.

Let us not forget that the primary interest we all share is that the global policy of non-proliferation succeeds and that the NPT is strengthened, not weakened. Without progress in the Middle East I am afraid that we can expect negative developments in this regard.

But this is also a wider cooperation issue, having to do with the role of the Middle East in a global context.
If indeed the Conference could lead to a broader dialogue and cooperation in the region, there would be many opportunities for the international community to assist and help as well as benefit from that – aware of the fact that this is primarily a regional idea.

Right now, there are many question marks regarding the prospects of the Conference.

The situation on the ground in the region, elections in important countries, new leaders and governments in several countries of the region, have preoccupied many with more pressing issues and problems.

If we need an adjustment of the time-table, it does not, in my view, mean cancellation and scrapping the whole thing. I believe that would be a strategic mistake, and we must avoid it.
The following text is as delivered to a private meeting of the ELN in London in November 2012. Since the statement was delivered, a postponement to the timetable for holding an International Conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East has been announced. 

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.