Arab League Backs Steps Toward Banning Mideast WMDs

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi, left, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, center, head a ministerial meeting at the body's Cairo headquarters in September. The organization's permanent representatives met on Sunday to coordinate national positions on talks regarding a potential Middle East ban on weapons of mass destruction.
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Nov. 11, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — The Ar­ab League on Sunday un­an­im­ously agreed to sup­port ele­ments of an Egyp­tian pro­pos­al for how Middle East na­tions could move to­ward a re­gion­al ban on weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion dis­cussed tak­ing “a uni­fied stance on how to deal with” the Mideast WMD-free zone ini­ti­at­ive “and put it in­to ac­tion,” ac­cord­ing to an Ar­ab League state­ment is­sued after the meet­ing.

However, it re­mained un­clear wheth­er Ar­ab na­tions are ral­ly­ing be­hind each as­pect of the Egyp­tian ini­ti­at­ive. Only a trimmed-back ver­sion of one of the meas­ures Cairo has put forth is spelled out in the new Ar­ab League res­ol­u­tion.

The mem­ber na­tions also said they “sup­port” the Egyp­tian pro­pos­al rather than “en­dorse” it. It was un­clear if the Ar­ab League in­ten­ded something short of full en­dorse­ment, but a spokes­man could not be reached for com­ment.

The level of un­an­im­ity among Ar­ab states on ne­go­ti­at­ing strategy could af­fect the pro­spects for hold­ing a ma­jor con­fer­ence in Hel­sinki to dis­cuss the cre­ation of a Mideast WMD-free zone. Egypt has led a dec­ades-long ef­fort to con­vene such talks, and suc­ceeded in per­suad­ing the 2010 Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Re­view Con­fer­ence to spon­sor a gath­er­ing by the end of 2012.

However, that con­fer­ence was post­poned when it proved im­possible to gain the vol­un­tary par­ti­cip­a­tion of all na­tions in the re­gion, as called for un­der the 2010 NPT fi­nal state­ment. Egyp­tian and Is­raeli of­fi­cials have traded barbs over who was to blame for the delay.

The Ar­ab League’s emer­gency meet­ing was called on Sunday to pre­pare for up­com­ing mul­tina­tion­al con­sulta­tions led by Jaakko Laa­java, a Finnish dip­lo­mat who is fa­cil­it­at­ing pre­par­a­tions for the pro­posed Hel­sinki con­fer­ence. He or­gan­ized an ini­tial con­sulta­tion in Gli­on, Switzer­land, last month and is ex­pec­ted to gath­er Mideast en­voys and oth­ers for a second round on Nov. 25.

Cairo’s new ini­ti­at­ive con­tains three ma­jor fa­cets. First, Mideast coun­tries and the five per­man­ent mem­bers of the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil — known as the “P-5” — would is­sue let­ters to the U.N. sec­ret­ary gen­er­al back­ing the concept of de­clar­ing the re­gion a WMD-free zone.

Second, re­gion­al na­tions that have not yet signed or rat­i­fied key nuc­le­ar, chem­ic­al or bio­lo­gic­al weapons-ban treat­ies would com­mit to do­ing so by the end of the year. That would in­volve ma­jor steps by Egypt, Is­rael and Syr­ia on the Bio­lo­gic­al and Chem­ic­al Weapons con­ven­tions, and by Is­rael re­gard­ing the Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty.

Un­der the third ele­ment of Cairo’s pro­pos­al, states in the re­gion and prin­cip­al NPT sup­port­ers — Bri­tain, Rus­sia and the United States — would pro­ceed to hold a con­fer­ence in Hel­sinki to dis­cuss the cre­ation of the spe­cial zone.

Egyp­tian For­eign Min­is­ter Nab­il Fahmy presen­ted Cairo’s pro­pos­al in a speech be­fore the U.N. Gen­er­al As­sembly in Septem­ber. On Sunday, Tariq Ad­el, Cairo’s per­man­ent rep­res­ent­at­ive to the League of Ar­ab States, shep­her­ded the ini­ti­at­ive at that or­gan­iz­a­tion, Daily News Egypt re­por­ted.

In its Sunday res­ol­u­tion, the Ar­ab League said it would “provide polit­ic­al and prac­tic­al sup­port” for the Egyp­tian ini­ti­at­ive, in­clud­ing the no­ti­fic­a­tion of all Ar­ab na­tions and the U.N. sec­ret­ary gen­er­al about its sup­port for de­clar­ing the Middle East a WMD-free zone.

However, the state­ment omits ex­pli­cit ref­er­ence to a P-5 role in these of­fi­cial no­ti­fic­a­tion let­ters, and leaves out men­tion of key-treaty ac­ces­sion moves. Many is­sue ex­perts have praised the Egyp­tian push for WMD treaty rat­i­fic­a­tion by all Mideast out­lier states, but have said this may not be feas­ible in ad­vance of a Hel­sinki con­fer­ence if the event is to be held in the near fu­ture.

In ad­di­tion, “the res­ol­u­tion does not men­tion the up­com­ing con­sulta­tions about the post­poned 2012 WMD[-free zone] con­fer­ence, per­haps in­dic­at­ing [that] some Ar­ab states want to keep op­tions open and re­main in­de­pend­ent,” Chen Kane, a seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ate at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies, said in an email ex­change on Monday.

Pa­tri­cia Lewis, who re­search dir­ect­or for in­ter­na­tion­al se­cur­ity at Chath­am House in Lon­don, told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire that she be­lieves the Ar­ab League “is genu­inely try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a com­mon ap­proach with Is­rael.”

She noted, though, that the greatest pro­gress to­ward hold­ing re­gion­al talks on ban­ning nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al and chem­ic­al weapons from the Middle East has been achieved in the NPT for­um, where Is­rael is not a mem­ber na­tion.

Is­rael is be­lieved to main­tain the re­gion’s sole nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al, though there is wide­spread con­cern about the po­ten­tial Ir­a­ni­an de­vel­op­ment of an atom­ic weapons cap­ab­il­ity, des­pite be­ing an NPT non-nuc­le­ar mem­ber na­tion. Chem­ic­al and bio­lo­gic­al arms de­vel­op­ment is be­lieved to have been car­ried out by a num­ber of Middle East coun­tries.

“Quite un­der­stand­ably, the [Ar­ab League states] want to keep this [NPT] frame­work and fear the con­sequences of let­ting it go,” po­ten­tially res­ult­ing in a col­lapse along the lines of sim­il­ar Arms Con­trol and Re­gion­al Se­cur­ity talks aban­doned in the mid-1990s, Lewis said.

“If the WMD[-free zone] pro­cess loses its con­nec­tion to the NPT, then the leg­al and ac­count­ab­il­ity tools will be weakened,” she said. “However, Is­rael is not bound by the NPT and so would like to loosen those ties to en­able its par­ti­cip­a­tion in the Hel­sinki meet­ing. Therein lies the conun­drum.”

If the re­gion’s Ar­ab and non-Ar­ab na­tions alike could move sim­ul­tan­eously to uni­formly em­brace all three WMD-ban treat­ies, such a “sig­nal would help free up the polit­ic­al space for all,” Lewis said. “It could take the form of en­dors­ing or mak­ing a de­clar­a­tion.”

The Ar­ab League tasked its High Of­fi­cial Com­mit­tee to “study prac­tic­al means for im­ple­ment­a­tion of the ini­ti­at­ive,” ac­cord­ing to the res­ol­u­tion text, a move that Lewis called “in­ter­est­ing and con­struct­ive.” The pan­el was asked to re­port its re­com­mend­a­tions but no spe­cif­ic dead­line was noted.

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