At the NPT, the Middle East has something to teach everyone

On Tuesday August 9th, METO hosted a side event at the 2022 NPT Tenth Review Conference in association with the Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the New York office of the German-funded, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The Conference, after having been delayed for the last two years due to COVID-19, lasted from August 1st-August 26th at the UN in New York. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been a part of international law for more than 50 years, and in 1995 it was extended indefinitely. The conference provides a channel for states and civil society organizations to discuss disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. As a part of the NPT’s extension in 1995, the Conference adopted a resolution calling for a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. At METO’s side event, we synthesized the updates to the fifth edition of our Draft Treaty for a WMDFZ in the Middle East, and welcomed Amb. Orlaith Fitzmaurice, Director of Disarmament and Non-proliferation at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, and Amb. Mohamed Elghitany, Head of Disarmament and Peaceful Uses of the Atomic Energy Division in Cairo, to discuss the history of the Zone and the current discourse regarding peace and security in the Middle East.

Ambassador Fitzmaurice spoke first, framing the panel by articulating the need to pull people together from a variety of positions and geographies for constructive dialogue. She referenced one of the crucial failures of the NPT in lacking a fruitful engagement between parties, specifically with key parties such as Israel refusing to participate. She highlighted METO’s work of producing a draft treaty and encouraging regional based measures to achieve peace not as the end-all and be-all of security, but as a necessary step in creating a more productive and transparent environment.

Following this theme of transparency, Ambassador Elghitany recounted the history of the NPT, and more specifically, the history of efforts in achieving a WMDFZ in the Middle East. He discussed the impossibility of creating the perfect conditions for discussion, arguing that all parties must begin a dialogue before they can adopt any meaningful security measures. He thus referenced a nuanced debate in the NPT and between Israel and Arab states more generally, in which Israel necessitates the right security environment before disarming, while Arab states argue that that environment will come as a result of disarmament. Furthermore, Ambassador Elghitany articulated the troubled and fraught history of the Middle East, both in its colonization and implication in great power conflicts, but also in its own internal instabilities. However, he recognized a difference between the modern Middle East security landscape, and that of fifty or even ten years ago; a landscape in which efforts for meaningful dialogue between many states have commenced, and states have more autonomy in this dialogue. He said, “We have transitioned away from the Middle East being what everyone doesn’t want to touch, to it giving more hope to what is possible in giving momentum, leading to many draft outcomes, and what can be achieved.”

After Ambassador Elghitany, Dr Leonardo Bandarra, Senior Research Associate at METO, presented the most recent edition of METO’s draft treaty on the Zone. He stated, “The draft treaty is a comprehensive text to show what different forms of the zone would look like”. Furthermore, he described the process of writing such a treaty, including many technical aspects of what it would take to achieve a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Historically, parties have stressed the technical aspects, such as effective verification methods, as prohibiting a productive dialogue over the zone. Bandarra does not claim the specific components of METO’s draft treaty must be adopted to achieve the Zone; however, his presentation on the process of writing such a treaty puts forth a variety of paths forward, arguing that it is not an impossible task. Thus, while implementing the treaty would bear considerable difficulties, he attempts to illustrate how engaging with the technicalities of a WMDFZ stimulates the conversation and brings more parties to the table.

The next speaker, Sharon Dolev, Executive Director of METO, described the current political tensions in the Middle East, and further emphasized the importance of creating discourse. She reiterated how Israel and the Arab states cannot agree on the right path forward to attain regional stability, with the Arab states calling for Israel’s disarmament while Israel argues it needs the right security environment. However, Dolev, while recognizing the importance of Israel in these discussions, argued not to declare these discussions futile due to Israel’s lack of participation. She said, “Lack of discourse is a liability, but there is discourse, not in Israel but here at the NPT conference, and that brings a power of ideas, and a path forward”. Recognizing the power of ideas is necessary to make the change one wants to see, Dolev argued that it is easy to surrender to the political tensions and complexity of the circumstances. Further, it is easy to get lost in the politics of the situation, rather than focusing on the real time consequences for the people of the region. On this, she asked, “There is this huge gap between human security and the security of the State… but what is the security of the State if not the security of the people?”

While the NPT has been in effect for more than 50 years, some view its power as decaying–a remnant of the status quo of the 70s, lacking the necessary fervor and support for modern disarmament and nonproliferation. However, as Dolev and Ambassador Elghitany both point out, the importance of the conference is not only its review of the treaty itself, but a channel for communication between NGOs and states. Both stress the need for discourse, but also the recognition of one’s own agency in the situation. While Dolev articulated the complex political realities that plague the Middle East, she reiterated Ambassador Elghitany’s ultimately hopeful assessment of the Middle East as an example of the possibilities produced by meaningful discourse. She concluded her speech by saying, “too long the world has talked at the Middle East, tried to teach the Middle East, tried to lead the Middle East, but what we can learn, especially here at the NPT, is that the Middle East has something to teach everyone”.