Delegates extolled the long overdue urgency of creating a nuclear‑weapon‑free zone in the Middle East today to quell chronic regional tensions and build an inclusive foundation of peace and security, as the inaugural Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction opened at Headquarters today, without the participation of Israel and the United States.
By the General Assembly’s decision 73/546, adopted on 22 December 2018, the world body entrusted the Secretary‑General to convene the week‑long conference, with the aim of elaborating a legally binding treaty to establish the zone, and invite all States in the Middle East, the five nuclear‑weapon States and relevant international organizations. This decision was adopted following an initial request for such a gathering at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Opening the Conference, United Nations Secretary‑General António Guterres said nuclear‑weapon‑free zones, like those already in place in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, can put a permanent end to the possibility of an atomic conflict in a given region while also providing tangible security benefits. The significance of a prospective Middle East zone extends far beyond the region, he said, adding that in accordance with universally agreed principles, such an area will need to be a product of the specific circumstances of the region and strengthen the security of all States.
Tijjani Muhammad‑Bande (Nigeria), President of the General Assembly, agreed, while cautioning that any use of the world’s more than 15,000 existing nuclear warheads would lead to a humanitarian and ecological catastrophe. “We cannot in good conscience ignore these risks,” he said. At the same time, designating such a zone should not deny States their sovereign right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy in support of their development.
Sima Sami I. Bahous (Jordan), President of the Conference, said a Middle East zone is a long sought‑after goal that is long overdue, given the region’s history of instability, war, injustice and human suffering. Concerned States must work collectively and inclusively to create the best environment to overcome regional challenges, including terrorism, with a view to drafting a consensual legally binding treaty that is guided by inclusivity and accountability.
In their opening introductory statements, many delegates noted the absence of Israel and the United States from the proceedings. Some emphasized that Israel is the only State in the region that is not party to the Non‑Proliferation Treaty and that its nuclear facilities are not subject to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) comprehensive safeguards regime.
Amal Mudallali (Lebanon) said Israel’s 80 to 90 nuclear warheads are a major source of concern at a time when the non‑proliferation landscape is weak and the pillars of the arms control regime are dying.
“The absence of the only nuclear‑weapon State in the Middle East does not bode well,” said Abdallah Y. Al‑Mouallimi (Saudi Arabia), adding that his country would have hoped not to see an empty seat in the meeting room. As such, he said, it is a failure on the part of the entire international community, not just the States of the Middle East, that Israel continues to hinder any attempt to build a regional zone free of nuclear weapons.
In the same vein, Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, said Israel’s absence demonstrates its international isolation. Moreover, Israel’s boycott of the conference echoes its longstanding policy of obstructing the establishment of a nuclear‑weapon‑free zone, and its behaviour is a serious threat that looms over the prospect of international peace and security.
Bashar Ja’afari (Syria) said his country was among the first to join the Non‑Proliferation Treaty in 1969 and is also a party to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction. While Syria hopes the Conference will build true momentum towards its objective, the absence of Israel and the United States sends a negative message that demonstrates that their allegations about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in the region are just political manoeuvres.
Majid Takht Ravanchi (Iran) said the “two main obstacles” to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons are the Israeli regime’s unwillingness to engage in this Conference and its weapons of mass destruction, supported by the United States. Such irresponsible policies and actions to proliferate weapons of mass destruction should be unacceptable to the international community. More than any other nation, Iran recognizes the need for a nuclear‑weapon‑free zone in the region, he said, calling for the total, irreversible and verifiable elimination of these inhumane weapons, which have no place in Tehran’s defence doctrine.
Mohamed Fathi Ahmed Edrees (Egypt) said disarmament and arms control efforts should not be contingent upon the attainment of ideal political and security conditions. For its part, Egypt aims at presenting realistic and practical proposals which are neither impossible to attain nor hindered by any technical obstacles that cannot be overcome. He emphasized that the absence of parties at the outset does not prevent negotiations from continuing, as they can join or accede to treaties at a later stage.
Also making opening introductory statements were representatives of Morocco, Bahrain, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Kuwait, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
The Conference will reconvene on Tuesday, 19 November, at 10 a.m. to continue its work.
SIMA SAMI I. BAHOUS (Jordan), thanking delegates for electing her country as President of the Conference, said a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is a long sought‑after goal and long overdue, given the region’s long history of instability, war, injustice and human suffering. Concerned States must work collectively and inclusively to create the best environment to overcome regional challenges, including terrorism, with a view to drafting a consensual legally binding treaty that is guided by inclusivity and accountability.
Speaking in her national capacity, she said trust and inclusivity are essential, with due consideration given to the rights and obligations of every country. Jordan supports a nuclear‑weapon‑free zone that does not infringe on the sovereign right of States to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The creation of such a zone in the Middle East is key to realizing the rights, hopes and aspirations of the region’s people to live in freedom from war, violence, terrorism and injustice.
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary‑General of the United Nations, said the world’s existing nuclear‑weapon‑free zones, in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, put a permanent end to the possibility of atomic conflict in a given region while also providing tangible security benefits. Serious deliberations on such a zone in the Middle East provide an opportunity for States in the region to discuss ways to address their security requirements. Highlighting that the significance of a prospective Middle East zone extends far beyond the region, he expressed hope that the Conference will mark the start of an inclusive process in which all States of the region can participate.
“In accordance with universally agreed principles, a Middle East zone will need to be a product of the specific circumstances of the region and strengthen the security of all States,” he said, emphasizing that numerous consensus resolutions adopted by the General Assembly provide a basis to consider the concerns of all States. Inspiration can be drawn from the first successful proposal for a denuclearized zone, in Latin America and the Caribbean, which was tabled in the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) just weeks after the Cuban missile crisis. Despite the tensions and politics of the Cold War, countries of the region persevered and in 1967 established a flexible and durable arrangement, which has served as a model for all such successive zones. He wished delegations a successful Conference, adding that he remains, through his High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, at their disposal to assist in this important effort.
TIJJANI MUHAMMAD‑BANDE (Nigeria), President of the General Assembly, noting the continued existence of more than 15,000 nuclear warheads around the world, said any use of these weapons would be a humanitarian and ecological catastrophe, causing irreplaceable damage. “We cannot in good conscience ignore these risks,” he said, adding that the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons remains the cornerstone of the nuclear disarmament and non‑proliferation regime, and its 2020 Review Conference will propel a stronger commitment towards a nuclear‑weapon‑free world.
Turning to other crucial tools, he said the adoption of the legally binding Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017 reflects a landmark effort to ban the development, testing, acquisition, use, or threaten of use, of atomic bombs. Each signature and ratification of this instrument is crucial, he said, encouraging those who have not yet done so to join. In addition, the Secretary‑General’s initiative, Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament, launched in 2018, seeks to engage stakeholders in innovative discussions on practical measures designed to generate outcomes in ongoing negotiations and other efforts. Nuclear‑weapon‑free zones should be determined by Member States of the concerned regions “in terms of both designation and the manner in which they should come into existence,” he said. However, the peaceful use of nuclear energy is a sovereign right of all States in support of their development, and establishing zones free of all weapons of mass destruction should not prevent States from using atomic science for peaceful purposes.