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Egypt Stages Walkout Over Failure to Convene Mideast WMD Summit
WASHINGTON -- The Egyptian delegation to a U.N.-sponsored gathering in Switzerland on Monday walked out in protest over the failure to convene an international conference to discuss banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, which had been anticipated for 2012.
“Egypt has decided to withdraw” from the ongoing preparatory meeting for the major Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference slated for 2015, declared Ambassador Hisham Badr, Egypt’s assistant foreign minister for international institutions and organizations.
The action appears to be unprecedented at the global nonproliferation planning meetings, which take place in each of the three years leading up to a five-year review conference.
Egyptian diplomats earlier this year led an Arab League campaign to threaten boycotting the entire two-week NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in Geneva amid acrimony over the WMD matter. The boycott never materialized.
Cairo representatives instead opted to participate in the Geneva dialogue regarding other treaty issues all last week. They left late on Monday only after making the final speech of the day, following formal addresses from the U.N.-designated WMD conference facilitator and selected nations.
No other nations have joined Egypt so far in the walkout.
The withdrawal, Badr said, was meant to register Cairo’s objections to an “unacceptable and continuous failure” to implement a 1995 resolution by NPT member states aimed at creating a WMD-free zone in the region.
Treaty nations three years ago took an additional step toward that goal by promising to convene by the end of 2012 the conference to discuss the Mideast ban on all nuclear, chemical and biological arms.
However, the U.N.-appointed facilitator for the conference, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, has been unable yet to persuade Israel -- which, as the region’s only known nuclear-armed state, has never signed the nonproliferation accord -- to agree with its Arab neighbors on the terms for convening such a gathering.
Laajava has consulted extensively with Israel and its Arab neighbors, and Israeli leaders have not ruled out the possibility of taking part in the major conference, which is to be held in Helsinki. Israelis have said they would consider engaging in a WMD-ban summit if the matter is discussed in the context of shared regional security concerns and if their nation is not singled out for criticism.
The Finnish envoy has proposed that regional nations first take part in a multilateral meeting in Geneva to iron out any disagreements over the objectives and outcomes for a WMD-ban conference, which ostensibly would then follow. The United States supports the idea and Israel has said it would attend multilateral direct consultations.
Arab states have said, though, that they would not agree to a Geneva planning session unless Israel first commits to participate in the Finland summit.
Laajava noted in his Monday speech that many Mideast nations have “requested the conveners to announce a new date for the [WMD] conference,” according to a U.N. report. He did not offer further comment on the idea, except to say he has “proposed holding multilateral consultations as soon as possible,” the international body’s report states.
Though Israel does not publicly acknowledge its atomic arsenal, it is the region’s only known nuclear-armed power with an estimated stockpile of 80 or more weapons.
“We insist now on an exact date to be set for convening the [WMD ban] conference,” Badr said in his address. “Egypt’s withdrawal from the [current] PrepCom aims to send a strong message of dissatisfaction with the lack of seriousness in dealing with the issue of establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons.”
The diplomat deplored what he called “unilateral postponement” of the 2012 WMD conference by Laajava and the convening nations -- Russia, the United States and United Kingdom -- late last year when it became apparent the deadline would be missed.
“This followed the expressed commitment of all but one country in the Middle East to attend such a conference,” said Badr, apparently referring to Israel. “We reject the excuses that were given.”
“As best I can tell, the Egyptian walkout took everyone by surprise, including the PrepCom chair and the Finnish facilitator,” said William Potter, who directs the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.
Until Egypt’s representative made his dramatic announcement in the session’s last speech of the day, “members of their relatively small delegation and that of the Arab League appeared to be more tired and fatalistic in their outlook than anything else,” said Potter, who is present at the Geneva meeting.
The PrepCom sessions continue through Friday.
The U.S. representative at the NPT gathering, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman, rejected the portrayal of last year’s postponement as a breach of the action plan issued at the end of the 2010 NPT review conference.
He said the international community could schedule the Helsinki conference “within months, if there existed the political will … to reach consensus on an agenda” and other key aspects of the gathering.
“We missed an important deadline – but we have not yet missed the opportunity to transform the security environment of the region,” Countryman said in a Monday speech at the PrepCom meeting.
He additionally moved to deflect blame for the delay away from Laajava and the convening nations, saying “leadership must also come from the states of the region.”
In his remarks, Badr hinted that Egypt and other like-minded nations could block progress on fulfilling other objectives laid out at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Goals established at that time included making headway in controlling fissile materials, banning nuclear explosive tests, expanding nuclear material safeguards and pursuing other global nonproliferation objectives.
“We cannot continue to attend meetings and agree on outcomes that do not get implemented, yet be expected to abide by the concessions we gave for this outcome,” Badr said.
Egypt’s frustration is “understandable,” said Beatrice Fihn, program manager for the peace advocacy organization Reaching Critical Will.
“The NPT [forum] has a long history of making bargains, but not keeping one side of the deal,” she said from Geneva in an e-mailed response to questions.
Over time, Russia and the United States have reduced their large stockpiles of nuclear arms. However, the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the 43-year-old treaty -- the others being China, France and the United Kingdom -- have not yet disarmed, she noted.
The treaty characterizes nuclear disarmament as a key obligation of these five nations in exchange for preventing proliferation among non-nuclear weapon states.
Member nations in 1995 agreed to indefinite extension of the treaty, provided that the Egyptian-led initiative to pursue WMD elimination from the Middle East would be pursued, Fihn said.
Despite Badr’s tough talk about the consequences of failing to schedule the 2012 conference, some observers are saying Egypt has few options for getting its way.
“I think Egypt doesn’t have strong hands [to play] in this, and it knows it,” said Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, also in Geneva this week. “Beyond these symbolic actions, the only options it feels it faces are Samson ones -- to pull the whole thing down, and that is not in their interests.”
Fihn said Badr “failed to explain what had made them change their minds” about remaining at the Geneva meetings, and “what the PrepCom could have achieved to make them stay.”
Potter called it “conceivable” that other nations would join the walkout -- if only in “solidarity” with Egypt -- but he said the odds appear against a broader protest.
“It is unlikely that there will be a coordinated departure as the Arab group does not appear to be united on the issue, and failure to act in unison could be interpreted as actually weakening the Egyptian position,” he told Global Security Newswire.
In fact, Potter said, it looks like Egypt has alienated some of its Arab League neighbors by abandoning the PrepCom gathering.
“None of the other Arab states had any prior knowledge about Egypt's walkout plans,” he said on Tuesday. “A number of Arab states are very critical of Egypt's action, not because they disagree at all with Egypt's grievances, but due to the unilateral manner in which Egypt acted.”
According to Potter, other Mideast delegations are now worried that the walkout “will have the unintended consequence of highlighting the appearance of differences within the Arab Group without advancing the objective of securing any positive response by the conveners -- and especially the U.S.”
Fihn said the Egyptian action could heighten pressure on Laajava and the WMD conference conveners to achieve progress on setting a date for the event, but “I assume that the PrepCom will continue as normal,” she added. “I don't think the walkout will have any significant impact on this meeting.”
So far, that appears to be the case.
“None of the [NPT member-nation] speakers this morning so far have said anything about Egypt's walkout,” Potter said on Tuesday.
“The only one to mention the issue” by press time was Romanian Ambassador Cornel Feruta, the PrepCom chairman, whose opening remarks “included the invitation to Egypt ‘to regain its seat’ at the PrepCom rapidly,” Potter said in an e-mailed update.
Longer term, “it also remains unclear what impact the walkout will have on the facilitator's efforts to convene multilateral consultations as a prelude to the actual Helsinki Conference,” Potter said on Monday. “A new card has been played, but it is too soon to tell if it represents a strong hand or a weak one on the part of Egypt.”
Countryman spent roughly two-thirds of his speech discussing concerns about WMD proliferation across the Middle East and around the globe, to include the Pakistan-India atomic standoff in South Asia and North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests.
“Certain proponents of the [Mideast WMD] conference speak as if the only issue to be discussed is Israel,” he said. “An honest discussion must also take into account the large quantities of chemical weapons held by Syria, and the fundamental challenge posed by Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Ingram said the United States is widely perceived as allowing the debate over a Mideast conference to play out without exerting much pressure on Israel to attend, even if that means the event might never occur.
Aware that Egypt lacks sufficient clout to force the issue, the United States “sits tight” and “appears willing to take the rap now” for helping protect Israel from calls to eliminate its nuclear arsenal, Ingram said.
Washington has an opportunity, though, to “change the game” by working to advance President Obama’s 2009 “Prague vision” for a world without nuclear weapons, he said.
“This would mean getting the Israelis to the table with suitable guarantees that this is not about isolating Israel, but rather building a WMD nonproliferation regime in the Middle East and globally that is effective and that everyone can have confidence in,” Ingram said.
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