METO in New York

The USA is not an easy place to enter at the last minute if you’re a Middle Easterner. You can’t just decide one day that you’re going to go. There are interviews to go through, paperwork to submit, and waiting to be done. So when METO decided that it would be really useful to have someone in New York during the November Conference [the annual conference at the UN convened for states of the region to negotiate a treaty to eliminate weapons of mass destruction] despite the UN not allowing civil society representatives in the building, and when the funding opportunity appeared, we sent Tony Robinson, our operations director.

Tony was not born in the the Middle East and speaks with a British accent, but as a co-director of the Middle East Treaty Organization he knows everything about the 4th version of our Draft Treaty that we are so very keen to get into the hands of the diplomats at the conference, and, more importantly, with a British passport he can get a visa waiver in half a day through the online application process! Thus, from the 29th of November to the 3rd of December, during the week of the November Conference, he was in New York, with a base of operations four blocks from the UN with a view of the Chrysler Building. 

In the week before the conference, METO organised an online side event for the Tuesday of the conference especially for the diplomats in the conference room. We wanted to present the work that we have been doing in 2021 on the evolution of our Draft Treaty, which now includes much more details on the institutional arrangements that a WMDFZ treaty will necessarily require along with mechanisms of verification, compliance, and inspections, among many others. DT4 represents a new model for a WMDFZ, with the capacity for overseeing the Zone established within the region, rather than relying on the capacity of organizations outside the region. It’s a model that has been used in South America and the Caribbean in their nuclear weapon free zone and works well over there. It resulted from the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the first nuclear weapon free zone to cover a heavily populated area. At the time of its negotiation both Brazil and Argentina had less than friendly relations and were both striving to develop nuclear technology. It was the Cuban Missile Crisis that caused non-nuclear aspiring countries of the region to take stock and bet on a nuclear-weapon-free future. The big difference with all other nuclear weapon free zone treaties is, of course, that the Middle East zone will also be free from chemical and biological weapons: an endeavour not attempted for any other region on the planet.

On the Monday of the Conference, while states in the region were listening to the speeches by the UN Secretary-General, the President of the General Assembly and delivering their opening remarks to the conference, in a print shop in Manhattan, Tony and our programme associate, Carter Myers-Brown who lives in New York state were printing copies of our Draft Treaty and invitations to our side event. Then, in a Subway on 3rd Avenue they prepared 24 packs of documents to deliver to the 24 Missions of the states of the zone. It was a sunny yet cold morning and a lovely day for zig-zagging through Midtown in search of buildings. Having delivered all their packages, it started to snow(!) and they sought refuge in a diner to eat and warm up.

The next day, in our online side event moderated by Paul Ingram, our expert advisors, Tariq Rauf (on nuclear weapons) and Jean Pascal Zanders (on chemical and biological weapons) together with our programme associate and lead treaty-drafter, Leonardo Bandarra, presented the key elements of our work to diplomats from the Zone. We were very pleased to have so much engagement and the feedback we received was very encouraging. We were happy to see that a lot of the things that METO had been hoping for prior to the conference made their way into the final document, including a decision to hold intersessional working groups in areas that align well with key elements of our latest Draft Treaty.

On Wednesday and Thursday, we held bilateral meetings with representatives of four countries of the region and all of them warmly welcomed the efforts of civil society to support the work of the conference.

On Friday, the results of the week were presented by the Kuwaiti president of the conference. In addition to the decisions to work between sessions of the conference, the Rules of Procedure were agreed and initial ideas were presented on the following areas:

  • Principles and objectives of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction
  • Core obligations related to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, including verification
  • Definitions, clarifications, consultation and cooperation
  • Peaceful uses and international cooperation
  • Institutional arrangements, entry into force and dispute settlement
  • Protocols including negative security assurances, and
  • Other relevant issues such as who will be the depository, and accessions, among others.

It was announced that the next conference will take place from the 14th to the 18th of November, 2022.

The conference wrapped up with closing statements from delegations. Even watching the proceedings online on UN TV you could feel the sense of achievement in the room. Several delegations congratulated their colleagues for the flexibility shown and the spirit of cooperation. Rhetoric about Israel was largely absent and instead it was emphasised that this process will proceed on the basis of consensus with the door open for Israel to participate at any time.

In the words of the Palestinian delegate: “We are today one step closer on the long path towards the objective of ridding our region of all weapons of mass destruction.”

Final reflections

Establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the region of the Middle East is a proposal that dates back decades and was tied to the fate of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) when in 1995 the indefinite extension of that treaty was linked to the creation of the Zone. Since that time progress has been repeatedly blocked by the United States on behalf of Israel, which is not even a state party to the NPT.

This November Conference process that emerged from a General Assembly resolution, which doesn’t rely on consensus in order to move forward with proposals, is already showing that providing a forum for countries of the region to sit down and talk about their security concerns has created an environment in which progress can be made.

No one believes it will be easy to get Israel to the negotiating table, but by showing the world that the other states of the region are serious about getting to work on WMD issues, it makes the position of the United States—that the time is not right for talking about disarmament—increasingly untenable. The elites in nuclear armed states depend on their survival for the obsolete doctrine of nuclear deterrence.  For how much longer will they be able to justify the exorbitant amounts of money they spend on them? The whole world is tired of wars and violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved once and for all, as if we didn’t already know, that weapons of mass destruction are the wrong answer to the question of achieving peace and ensuring security for humanity.

The countries of the region that are serious about regional peace and prosperity are making progress, and although there are aspects of this conference that could be improved, for instance the participation of women in the room was virtually non-existent, we have to see this conference in a process and not as an isolated event.

Family photo, after the November Conference, photo credit: Mission of Kuwait to the UN in New York, on twitter

Furthermore, we have to make progress on WMDs because even bigger issues are looming on the horizon that will need our attention if we are to achieve human security for every human being of the region: autonomous weapons and nanotechnology are just two of the issues in the field of war that will rapidly make nuclear weapons look like hand guns in terms of efficiency in winning wars. On top of that, climate change will lead to issues of food, water and energy insecurity, which, if not dealt with equitably, will lead to social unrest that governments of the region will not be remotely capable of dealing with in the absence of regional cooperation across a wide range of issues.

As the next Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty gets ever closer, it is important to recognise that important steps are being taken to eliminate WMDs from the region. We hope that states parties to the NPT welcome the work of the November Conference and do everything in their power to nurture and support it. Constantly blaming the Middle East for failures to agree on outcomes at the NPT will be seen as nothing other than bad faith on behalf of those who choose that course of action.

It is time for such countries to stop blaming others to justify their own failures to meet their disarmament obligations that are enshrined in the NPT and that they worked so hard to bring into existence in the 1960s, the ultimate goal of which—complete global nuclear disarmament—is, today, more important than ever.