Destruction, Palestine-Israel Journal, vol. 19, no. 12 (Jerusalem, 2013)
If nuclear weapons were used in a regional conflict â€” no matter where â€” the consequences would be international. Similarly, any progress toward making one country or region nuclear weapons-free will not only increase regional security but also assist international peace and security and global efforts to marginalise and eliminate nuclear weapons.
Making the world nuclear weapons-free and achieving a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (MEWMDFZ) are the stated objectives of many leaders, from U.S. President Barack Obama to governments in the League of Arab States and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Even Israel joins the consensus on an annual United Nations General Assembly resolution on â€œEstablishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East,â€ though it votes against a more specific resolution on proliferation risks. The political interface is complicated, since some make one kind of disarmament conditional on another, some use â€œafter youâ€ arguments for resolving broader peace and security issues first, while some treat both the regional-incremental and comprehensive objectives as practically impossible (â€œnot in my lifetimeâ€).
This essay looks at the regional-international nexus, and makes the case that these objectives are mutually interdependent and should not be treated as linearly sequenced: Removing obstacles and making progress toward the regional and international disarmament objectives are most effectively pursued in parallel. Civil society should therefore work with governments to achieve a global treaty to ban nuclear weapons, while supporting efforts to promote peace, justice and human rights, and eliminate all WMD from the Middle East, ideally through regional negotiations on a MEWMDFZ.
International Commitments and Regional Implications
Since 2011, many Middle East countries have been experiencing profound challenges and changes. While it is difficult to predict how the civil society movements for human rights, democracy and greater freedom will develop, in the ensuing political shifts and upheavals there are likely to be heightened periods of instability and risk. In these circumstances it should be obvious to all that nuclear weapons and military-capable nuclear programs pose even more serious threats than usual â€” not only to countries in the Middle East, but to the world.
Chemical and biological munitions may also pose regional threats, but such programs are mostly residual as the weapons have been internationally prohibited under the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It is undoubtedly necessary to ensure compliance and implementation of existing obligations relating to all weapons of mass destruction, but at least universally applicable laws are in place for biological and chemical armaments and it is widely recognized that any use of such weapons would be treated as crimes against humanity and war crimes. By contrast, the central legal instrument governing nuclear arms is the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which does not address nuclear weapons use or provide a universal, non-discriminatory prohibition on possessing, deploying, transporting or stockpiling nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the NPT divides the world into nuclear â€œhavesâ€ and â€œhave-nots,â€ which has resulted in the counterproductive situation that nuclear weapons are regarded as projecting political value and status for their possessors in ways that other weapons do not.
The 2010 Review Conference of the NPT was hard-fought and succeeded in getting commitments on both regional and international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The central agreement â€” on which the success of the 2010 Review Conference hinged â€” was to â€œconvene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all states of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states.â€ The 2012 Conference was to be convened by the UN secretary-general and the NPT depositaries (Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), who would appoint a facilitator and host country for the conference, taking the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East as the terms of reference.
Finland was chosen as the host country, and the Finnish ambassador Jaakko Laajava was appointed facilitator. Despite his hard work and indefatigable consultations and efforts, the designated 2012 Conference did not take place that year (and at the time of writing there is still no date or agreement for it to be held in 2013).1Â In protest, Egypt withdrew its delegation halfway through the 2013 Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom) of NPT states in Geneva, which caused shudders of anxiety among many governments.2Although some have sought to play down the significance of Egyptâ€™s walk out, others are predicting that failure to convene an effective conference on the Middle East in the next year could lead to a showdown at the 2015 NPT Review Conference.
Since the 1960s, the NPT has been widely described as the cornerstone of international non-proliferation and disarmament. Efforts by the Arab States and NAM allies to exert pressure on Israel and its NPT ally, the U.S., have played a growing role in the NPT Review Conferences, underscoring the regional-international security relationship, at least from the perspective of Arab states. Without the 1995 resolution it is doubtful the NPT could have been indefinitely extended by consensus. Their decision to pursue a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) â€”in the Middle East â€”which was subsequently broadened to encompass all WMDs â€” drew its legitimacy from Article VII of the NPT and the experiences of states in other regions. Article VII acknowledged that states also had the right to conclude â€œregional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.â€ Five nuclear weapons-free-zone (NWFZ) treaties have been negotiated, covering Latin America and the Caribbean3, the South Pacific, Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. These separately negotiated legal treaties were pursued in parallel with the NPT, proving useful for embedding regional disarmament and constraining nuclear ambitions.
At the same time, international disarmament objectives and steps have become more explicit in the NPT context, though not yet vigorously or comprehensively implemented. The 2010 NPT Review Conference addressed nuclear weapons use for the first time in a groundbreaking paragraph that framed the disarmament action points:
The Conference expresses its deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirms the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.4
Further framing paragraphs referred to the responsibility of â€œall states â€¦ to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons,â€ and referenced the UN secretary-generalâ€™s plan for nuclear disarmament, which recognized the need for additional treaties to bring about, embed and implement nuclear disarmament.5
In its â€œAction 5,â€ the NPT 2010 final document renewed commitments to various steps that should be undertaken by the five treaty-defined â€œnuclearweapon states,â€ which are also obliged to report on their implementation of these steps in 2014. The designated actions included overall reductions leading to the total elimination of all nuclear arsenals, further diminishing â€œthe role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policiesâ€ and measures relating to preventing the use of nuclear weapons, lessening the danger of nuclear war, further reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons systems, enhancing transparency and reducing the risks of accidental use.6
While it is noticeable â€” and criticized by many non-nuclear NPT parties â€” that the nuclear disarmament actions in the 2010 final document are generally weaker than the â€œ13 Stepsâ€ that had been adopted ten years earlier by the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the framing of the NPT requirements is now stronger, especially in terms of compliance with international humanitarian law and the clear goals of eliminating nuclear arsenals and achieving and maintaining a world free of nuclear weapons.
Though Israel is not a party to the NPT, Israeli nuclear weapons are an ever-present problem in all NPT meetings. In protecting Israelâ€™s perceived nuclear interests, the U.S. frequently finds itself in an anomalous and hypocritical position in which it tries to attack Iran (an NPT state party which does not have nuclear weapons, though it is vociferous in asserting its NPT â€œrightsâ€ under Article IV for a program which could provide military nuclear capabilities) while shielding Israel, a non-NPT party widely recognized as having some kind of nuclear arsenal, though its doctrines and arsenal configuration are opaque and undeclared.
In the context of the Cold War, the NPT served the world well. Nowadays, because of its history and structural flaws, it does not have the legal powers and capabilities to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, even though this is the overall objective of most NPT states parties. Due to its partial approach and creation of two categories of parties â€” called â€œnuclear-weapon statesâ€ and â€œnon-nuclear-weapon statesâ€ â€” the NPT has not adequately delegitimized nuclear weapons. Failing to create a universal and sustainable norm against nuclear weapons, the NPT also enshrines incentives for developing nuclear fuel cycle programs and provides cover for a minority of governments to continue with doctrines, threats and operations of nuclear use. Due to these counterproductive factors, the NPT presides over an indefinite future of nuclear programs and weapons modernization and deployment. This reality causes specific problems in the Middle East, where Israel has for many years been in a relatively comfortable position as a â€œfree-riderâ€ on the NPT regime, benefitting considerably without being legally constrained by the treaty.7
The Regional-International Nexus for the Middle East
More than at any previous time in human history, todayâ€™s nations are interdependent â€” environmentally, economically and in political and security terms. Nuclear capabilities are frequently â€œusedâ€ for the purposes of deterrence and power projection. Any actual detonation would have global consequences. Such a use would cause immediate local devastation, with catastrophic blast, heat, fires, deaths, injuries and radiation effects.8Â Through the logic of current nuclear doctrines of deterrence9, the detonation of one nuclear weapon could well result in retaliatory launches and a probable â€œuse them or lose themâ€ escalation into regional or transnational nuclear war. If there was a chance to pull back without such escalation, the shock of an accidental or intentional detonation of nuclear weapons might be enough to give political impetus to accelerate international nuclear disarmament efforts and get a global agreement to ban nuclear weapons.
The second of those outcomes would be greatly preferred to the first and could be achieved more swiftly through political means, without resulting in mass casualties and suffering. Scientists may be able to calculate the probable impacts of different levels of nuclear detonations in terms of their regional and global health and environmental effects, but the broader humanitarian, social and political consequences are more difficult to gauge and may escalate. To avoid furthering the human misery that nuclear detonations cause, it would be far better to preemptively jolt governments into dealing with the threats posed by nuclear armaments through international political strategies. After decades of nuclear disarmament campaigning and several partial treaties, new partnerships are developing between nuclear weapons-free states and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)10Â to mobilize for a global treaty to ban and eliminate all nuclear weapons and military nuclear programs.
In debates on nuclear disarmament, regional NWFZ initiatives are sometimes treated as more achievable incremental steps than a comprehensive ban. This was true in the past and for some regions, but is not necessarily the case for the remaining zones of nuclear insecurity, especially the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, where nuclear weapons and doctrines are accorded high salience in the security policies of one or more states. In relation to the geographical zone, one of the first questions when considering a NWFZ, the geostrategic location of the Middle East demonstrates why a limited regional zone may appear more achievable if international strategies are being pursued at the same time. The general view is that the proposed MEWMDFZ should encompass all the Arab states plus Iran and Israel. Iran and Israel, however, look with concern toward nuclear-armed Pakistan and India. India vies with nuclear-armed China on its borders, while China wants to be sure that any steps are taken in conjunction with others in the â€œP5,â€ notably Russia and the U.S. north of the Middle East are nuclear-armed NATO and Russia. Turkey sits at a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East/Asia, and is one of five NATO countries to host U.S. nuclear weapons, while France and the UK deploy nuclear weapons which they appear bent on retaining and modernizing as long as they can.
Reframing Helsinki with Humanitarian Disarmament Progress
What, then, is the relationship between the Helsinki Conference, the NPT and current humanitarian disarmament initiatives, and what further can be done to free the Middle East of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction?
Focusing on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons is not a panacea, but this approach makes it much more difficult for Israel and other nuclear-armed states to avoid questions and ignore disarmament pressures. Previously, with the U.S. inside NPT meetings protecting the Israeli stateâ€™s perceived interests, the non-proliferation regime suited Israeli governments, especially once its neighbors had all acceded to the treaty. That calculus has begun to change, under pressure from both the Iranian nuclear program (which Israel perceives as a threat that the NPT is not preventing) and Arab League initiatives such as the Helsinki Conference, designed to put Iran, Israel and its U.S. ally under greater pressure.
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