WASHINGTON -- The Finnish diplomat charged with organizing a U.N.-sponsored conference on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East this week proposed resolving continued acrimony over the idea by keeping the gathering short and simple.
“We have suggested that the conference itself would be relatively brief with the aim of reaffirming the common objective of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East,” said Jaakko Laajava, Finland’s undersecretary of state for foreign and security policy.
Participants could also use the session to identify “follow-on steps seeking to make progress to that end,” according to the future confab’s official “facilitator.” Those subsequent steps could include “regional cooperation and expert-level work” in arms control and confidence-building, which he said would be necessary “for the process to be sustainable.”
Laajava spoke on Monday in Switzerland at a preparatory meeting for a major 2015 review conference on the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The text of his speech was subsequently released.
The question of when to hold the gathering of regional states and supporting nations to discuss the concept of banning nuclear, chemical and biological arms from the Middle East has been a key focus at the two-week-long NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in Geneva.
This follows a failure to convene the Mideast talks by 2012, which was a stated goal of the 2010 review conference held in New York to discuss progress on the treaty and related nonproliferation initiatives. The proposed WMD-free zone for the region was first embraced by the NPT forum in 1995.
Late last year, Laajava and the Mideast conference-convening nations -- Russia, the United Kingdom and United States -- announced that time had run out for getting regional countries to agree in 2012 on an agenda and terms for the event. The conference was postponed indefinitely, though all participants promised to continue dialogue and planning.
The Finnish envoy said on Monday that since his appointment in October 2011, he has conducted more than 300 rounds of discussions about the matter, mostly with “regional stakeholders.”
Following Laajava’s speech and remarks from a number of NPT member nations, Egypt’s representative at the Geneva meeting on Monday protested the missed deadline. Ambassador Hisham Badr then led Cairo’s delegation in a walkout of the remainder of the NPT meetings, which conclude on Friday.
Israel and its Arab neighbors have remained at odds over scheduling the WMD-ban discussion event, which is to be held in Helsinki though no new target date has been set. Egypt and the Arab League have called on Israel – the region’s only known nuclear-armed power -- to immediately pledge it would attend the conference.
Laajava, however, has supported Israel’s call to first meet in direct multilateral discussions to establish objectives and desired outcomes for the Helsinki summit.
“To sustain the momentum created in 2012,” as Laajava’s shuttle diplomacy between different regional and supporting nations and institutions intensified, he “proposed last November holding multilateral consultations as soon as possible,” the diplomat said. “Such consultations did not yet materialize.”
Laajava remarked that he would not “dwell on the reasons why,” but said that looking forward, “more work is clearly needed, and I remain flexible and open to new ideas and fresh approaches.”
After the walkout, “one must assume that Egypt hopes that its action will not only play well domestically, but will yield some leverage on the Middle East [conference] conveners, especially the U.S.,” said William Potter, who directs the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Replying from Geneva to a reporter’s questions, he said it is “not at all obvious” the Egyptian diplomatic withdrawal will have its desired effect.
“Nothing the U.S. has said suggests that anything less than more active and direct engagement by the Arab states with Israel will increase the prospects of Israel agreeing to participate in the Middle East conference,” he told Global Security Newswire.
The U.S. delegate to the current nonproliferation meeting this week told Reuters that Washington will continue to pursue the objective of a Helsinki gathering.
"We regret the Egyptian decision to leave the NPT Preparatory Committee meeting,” Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, was reported as saying. “It does not affect the U.S. commitment to convening a conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.”
In his remarks to the NPT meeting early this week, Laajava prodded all parties involved not to give up.
“Sometimes, virtually intractable problems get solved, against all odds,” he said. “The demand of peacemaking is to seek common ground and design a shared future. The task of leaders is to take risks and not be deterred by the difficulties ahead.”