Nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs) have come to be viewed as a partial but important element in the complex architecture needed to constrain nuclear proliferation and advance wider nuclear disarmament objectives. Important contributions to the intellectual and political foundations of this approach include:

  • Common Security Report (1982) compiled by the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues;
  • Non-proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference (1995);
  • Canberra Commission Report (1996);
  • Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (1998);
  • United Nations Disarmament Commission Guidelines on Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (1999);
  • United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East: Global Non-Proliferation Regimes and Regional Experiences (2004);
  • Weapons of Terror Report of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (2006);
  • Ministerial Declaration of the Seven Nation Initiative on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation (2006);
  • International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament (2008);
  • Eliminating Nuclear Threats Report of International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament Report (2010); and
  • Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference (2010).

Such zones involve regional states entering into binding commitments not to develop and acquire nuclear weapons, thereby complementing commitments under the NPT which is ratified by 189 states (all except Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). The stabilising benefits of such zones have been widely canvassed. The 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission stressed that NWFZs fill several important “gaps” in the NPT regime, as well as “complement and reinforce” it. Specifically, they:

  • preclude foreign deployment of nuclear weapons on the specified territory of the zone;
  • provide for legally binding negative security assurances by nuclear weapon states to zonal members;
  • strengthen full-scope IAEA safeguards governing exports from territories within the zone; and
  • strengthen the emerging global norm against nuclear testing.

At the May 2007 NPT Preparatory Committee conference, the UK Government argued that additional NWFZs were a logical next step in efforts toward international non-proliferation and disarmament:

“The best way of achieving the necessary guarantees sought by the non-nuclear weapon States is through the protocols annexed to treaties creating nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZs).  This will provide, on a credible, regional basis, the internationally binding legal instruments on negative security assurances that many are looking for.”

Similarly in 2009 the US Administration, in its draft submission to the UN Security Council on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament, emphasized the vital role that NWFZs can play in reinforcing the foundations of a viable non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament regime:

“Welcoming and supporting the steps taken to conclude nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties and reaffirming the conviction that the establishment of internationally recognized nuclear-weapon-free zones . . . enhances global and regional peace and security, strengthens the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and contributes toward realizing the objectives of nuclear disarmament.”

This commitment to NWFZs is a product of a substantial record of legal elaboration and political maturation spanning more than 50 years. The first regional, land-based agreement covering a populated area, namely Latin America, was concluded in 1969.  Since then these land-based NWFZs cover over 100 states, and include virtually the entire Southern Hemisphere.

Whilst no WMD Free has yet been established, a strong case has been made that prevailing conditions in the Middle East make this a more appropriate option – not only for Israel in order to ensure it is not only they under pressure to disarm a central part of their arsenal, but also the Arab states and Iran who are keenly interested also in the eradication of chemical and biological weapons from the region.

How far has this proposal got to for the Middle East? 

The establishment of a nuclear weapons-free-zone (NWFZ) covering the Middle East region was first formally proposed in 1974. Put forward in the form of a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly, Egypt and Iran’s proposal gained support from 138 states, with only Burma and Israel abstaining.

Following an Israeli counter-proposal favouring direct negotiations with all other states rather than a universal fiat, in 1980 Egypt submitted a revised proposal that was agreed upon for the first time by all states in the region. Four key principles underpinned the revised Egyptian proposal: first, all states should refrain from producing, acquiring, and possessing nuclear weapons; second, all nuclear weapon states should refrain from introducing nuclear weapons into the region or using them against other states in the region; third, an effective international verification system should be established; and fourth, peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be accessible to all, particular for those striving for economic development.

Quite remarkably, a resolution has since been passed annually, without major opposition from the relevant actors since. Yet, no formal discussions have taken place. Many factors have contributed to this disappointing outcome: the actual or perceived intention of one or more states within the region to acquire nuclear weapons; the actual or projected expansion of civilian nuclear power programs in the region; the lack of headway in resolving many of the seemingly intractable conflicts of the region; the military procurement and deterrence policies of regional powers; the role of external actors such as Turkey, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan; and differing views on the feasibility and modalities of either a nuclear weapons or WMD free zone.”

Despite the improbability of agreement on a formal WMD free zone, the proposal was a central part of the 1995 Non-proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference, and is therefore critical to the continued viability of the entire nuclear weapons regime.

More than a decade later the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission headed by Hans Blix called yet again for the implementation of existing regional NWFZs and the establishment of zones free of WMD in other regions, “particularly and most urgently in the Middle East”.

In November 2009, the Australia-Japan sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament co-chaired by former Australian foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans, put the case even more bluntly, arguing that “serious movement” toward the creation of a WMDFZ in the Middle East as advocated by the 1995 NPT Review Conference would “make or break” the recently completed 2010 RevCon, as well as the viability of the entire NPT regime.

More recently, at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, state parties unanimously called for for Israel’s accession to the NPT, to become subject to IAEA protocols concerning its nuclear weapons stockpiles and sites, and to attend a UN-sponsored conference in 2012 about a denuclearised Middle East.

Within days of this final document being released, I said that:

“For Iran and the Arabs, led by Egypt, it appeared a sweet victory. For Israel it is nothing but a proposition.”

before going on to simplify the basic demands of the three key actors in the region in these terms:

“Crudely put, Egypt, Israel and Iran have competing reasons for promoting the idea. Egypt sees it as a way of removing Israel’s nuclear superiority. Israel maintains that lasting peace agreements with its neighbours are a prerequisite to any formal negotiation. Iran uses it to exert pressure on Israel’s policy of nuclear ‘ambiguity’, and to deflect attention from its own non-compliance with international safeguards.”

Only last month Finland were named as the hosts and facilitators of the 2012 Conference on a denculearised Middle East. In addition, numerous Track Two expert groups have met and begun to compile policy and research materials in preparation for the 2012 negotiations.

However, the task of achieving anything like a WMD free Middle East has become significantly more complex following the Arab Spring – not least of which, the removal of regimes long supportive of the proposal, the possible proliferation of chemical and biological weapons from Libya and Egypt, widespread domestic unrest in Israel, as well as the heightened fears and strategic insecurity of Israel.

To be sure, the road ahead will be as hard as it will be long, however, it is possible that in the next few years – and note I did not forecast this to occur in the next year – there might well be a series of agreements in place that go some way to addressing the problem of WMD in the Middle East.

Whether that is another nuclear-weapon-free zone remains to be seen. But as I reasoned fifteen months ago:

“I have some small hope that Israel too may do the unexpected, and bring its nukes to the negotiating table. Israel have the trump card in this; may Iran and the Arabs respond in kind. Relations in the Middle East are tense enough without the need for WMD”.

I am willing to risk being “breathtakingly naive” and not ruling out that “small hope” just yet.


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