Talking disarmament for the Middle East

Last month Noha Tarek from Egypt commented on my reflection that neither members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), with the exception of India, nor Arab League members have contributed financially or in kind to the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW). Syria participates in both groupings. She linked disarmament elements to a host of intra-regional and external politics and considered the relationship between Syria’s (read: Arab) CW and Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

It has taken me a while to reply. I could have easily registered my disagreement with several elements, but that does not open new perspectives for disarmament in the Middle East. Moreover, any ‘correctness’ of a viewpoint would depend entirely on whether Noha and I share a common taxonomy of issue interrelatedness, which we do not. On the contrary, I am absolutely convinced that the public discourse on disarmament in the region must change if any progress is to be made. By governments, to make negotiated solutions acceptable to their respective citizens. By the public to allow politicians and diplomats the space to back out of entrenched positions held for so many decades. Security, of course, remains paramount. However, it can be organised differently. Disarmament is after all the continuation of security policies by alternative means.

Can we move beyond the endless, anaemic exercises to describe every conceivable obstacle in their minutest detail? Is it possible for issue experts from international civil society to design from a purely technical viewpoint some first practical steps to offer substance to the disarmament debate ? This blog posting sketches a few possibilities. I am far from certain that I have the right answers (or even the right analysis for that matter), but the thoughts can hopefully foster a problem-solving discourse.

Linking issues

Nobody denies that the Middle East is riven by geopolitical rivalries, domestic intrigues, and political upheaval. The cleavages are many: economic, ethnic, inter- and intra-religious, political, sub-regional, and so on. Moreover, many of those divisions are reproduced on the micro level within countries, pitting one part of society against another. The respective dynamics easily allow personal identification with one group or side of an issue. International grievances nurture personal vexation and vice versa. Pain becomes very tangible after suffering loss of kin or property, adding frustrated anger to the mix. As a net result, any fresh incident, however small and whatever its cause or nature, will resonate across this vast meshwork of crosscutting cleavages, thereby reinforcing prepossessions on any given set of issues. In addition, a positive development in one issue area will be discarded as irrelevant for its lack of direct remedial impact on other ones.

Noha’s commentary points to several such linkages. Egypt’s relationship with Israel is determined by the latter country’s possession of nuclear weapons and its oppression of the Palestinians. She also noted that the international community privileges Israel, as attested by the different standards applied by the IAEA to Israel compared to Iran. Instead of addressing the real risks posed by the nuclear weapons, she continued, the US, Israel, the UN and the IAEA have forced the problems surrounding a Middle East Free Zone into a framework of strategic interests and power balance.

Hence, from a strategic viewpoint Syria’s CW disarmament must be viewed as a loss as the CW offered a modest balance to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Egypt, she wrote, ‘now stands alone (from the group of Arab countries) with its chemical weapons in order to singularly pressure the West to take serious steps in regard to Israel’s nuclear weapons’. The dismantling of Syria’s chemical warfare capacity is equally not beneficial to the Syrian population, who continue to suffer from daily war atrocities and the lack of humanitarian aid. The failure of the recent negotiations in Geneva underscores the plight of the Syrians. The CW disarmament, so she concluded, removes ‘much needed productive pressures on the US and Israel who currently form the major obstacle ahead of establishing a nuclear and WMD Free Zone in the Mideast’.

Talking disarmament, instead of about disarmament

As noted in the introduction, I disagree with several issues. The commentary also reflects an ill-defined belief that the past—that is, an idea of status quo—was somehow a better engine for change. It is an intriguing position to take. But it is also one that continues to nurture grievances over taking positive action. We need to find a way to take the disarmament question outside the sphere of personalised grievances and start having technical discussions on basic questions irrespective of the (lack of) political and diplomatic progress. In my mind, being able to offer diplomats substance to cut their teeth on might actually start a ball, however small, rolling.

The envisaged technical working group would be made up of non-governmental experts, from the region and some outside experts. They can start out with laying the foundation for common understandings and preparing blueprints for realistic solutions. The experts have the advantage that they to not have to imagine the unimaginable. Disarmament treaties in the fullest sense of their meaning (i.e., going to zero) exist and experiences with the negotiation of weapon reductions (both arms control and disarmament), the design and implementation of compliance verification, and the prevention of future (re)armament are available. This is not to suggest that existing agreements ought to be simply copied. However, the independent experts could, for instance, debate the general applicability of the CWC and BTWC to the Middle East, possibly supplemented with provisions adapted to the regional security conditions. With regard to nuclear weapons, they should give due consideration to the circumstances under which Israel might renounce its nuclear deterrent with the least discomfort. (I shall return to both aspects.)

Define the scope of the disarmament arrangements

Irrespective of the agreements under consideration, the non-governmental experts will have to consider the scope of an arrangement specifically designed for the Middle East. Will it be limited to state weapon programmes, or must it cover possible non-state actor activities, such as preparations or use by terrorist and criminal entities? If one were to follow the model of the BTWC and the CWC, then the treaty’s focus would be on state-run weapon programmes. The CWC’s verification regime recognises the potential role of the private industry in CW armament programmes. The BTWC, being of much earlier vintage, lacks verification machinery. However, through a series of expert and state party meetings between the quinquennial review conferences since 2001, states have come to appreciate the contribution of other stakeholders in the life sciences to the prevention of BW acquisition by states, terrorists or criminals. As a result, a division of labour between the international community and individual parties to the treaties has emerged. The CWC defines such complementary roles for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and its individual members most clearly.

Thus, the CWC demands not only the domestication of international prohibitions and obligations, but also the enactment of domestic criminal and penal legislation. In addition, other types of regulation, such as technology transfer controls, are required. Those laws and regulations cover all activities by any natural or legal person on territory of the state party and apply the principle of extra-territoriality to its own nationals. Despite the absence of an implementing organisation, the BTWC imposes corresponding obligations. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004) has reinforced this appreciation with regard to all three major categories of non-conventional weaponry (irrespective of wether a UN member is party to the BTWC, CWC or NPT).

This question about what the multilateral treaty arrangement should cover and which responsibilities should be exclusively assigned to states is not a trivial one. It queries perceptions of what constitute the gravest security threats to individual societies. The sustainment of low-intensity conflict by some regional states through proxies in other parts of the Middle East compounds the issue further. First, those proxy entities are often capable of assimilating more sophisticated weaponry (particularly if they do not have to develop and manufacture the weaponry themselves) than what an even rather advanced terrorist entity (e.g., Aum Shinrikyo) could ever achieve. Second, any regional disarmament arrangement will have to ensure that no proscribed arms are being transferred to the proxy agents or that these entities otherwise acquire such weaponry. The BTWC and the CWC both prohibit the transfer of outlawed technologies to any recipient whatsoever. However, the first point heightens threat perceptions for those states affected by proxy conflict, which will raise their demands for guarantees on the non-possession and non-transfer in the disarmament treaty and from the treaty partners. Add to this matter the consideration that proxy agents operate from territories suffering from weak or no central government control, or actually represent the territorial power, and the neat division of labour in the BTWC and CWC appears far less invitatory in a regional framework characterised by complex security interactions.

This issue area clearly holds the potential to derail the Middle East disarmament process even before the train has left the station. And it is precisely one of the areas where the independent, non-governmental experts might make a huge difference. They could, of course, discuss the security guarantees extended by existing treaties in the light of various threat perceptions and come up with various options for supplementary measures to be included in a regional agreement. However, they might opt for an indirect route, for example, by trying to delimit the weaponry to be covered by the future agreement(s).

Definitions are defining

Proponents of nuclear arms control have few problems with the mandate set forth in the final documents of the 1995 and 2010 NPT Review Conferences: the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. Interestingly, neither ‘nuclear weapon’ nor ‘weapon of mass destruction’ are legally defined in an internationally binding document. ‘Weapon of mass destruction’ has meant different things over the past six decades or so. However, in order to avoid losing the main thread of this posting, let us assume that the notion ‘other weapons of mass destruction’ encompasses chemical and biological weapons (CBW).

Both weapon classes are defined in the CWC and BTWC respectively. Since both conventions are likely to weigh on regional disarmament negotiations (either by having all Middle Eastern powers join them, or by using them as a reference framework for regional security arrangements), the state parties to the NPT have adopted a mandate that stretches from the almost 60 megaton hydrogen device detonated by the Soviet Union in 1961 at one extreme to tear gas and salmonella (deployed by the Rajneesh cult in Oregon in 1984) or ricin at the other extreme. People will be tempted to retort (as nuclear experts tend to do, alas) that in the Middle East context, nobody is considering incapacitants or irritants. If that view were to prevail, then the next question is what role, if any, those people discern for the CWC and the BTWC? And it leaves them with the additional task of delimiting and defining CBW, not an easy thing if the regional agreement is to be buttressed by a verification and compliance enforcement machinery.

The issue to be submitted to the proposed technical working group of non-governmental experts, however, is quite different for defining the arms categories is an exercise in identifying which types of weaponry regional actors perceive to be the most threatening and destabilising.

At first sight, this activity may seem banal. However, try to view a piece of weaponry not as an artefact deprived of context. A deployed weapon has been assimilated into military doctrine, i.e., it plays a certain role in the way the military organise and prepare themselves to implement the security policies set by a nation’s highest political authorities. In other words, the security goals and derived military doctrine shape the types of required weapon technologies, just as much as the available or possible weapon technologies help to frame both doctrine and security policies.

This process of assimilation—the reconciliation of political and military imperatives with each other so that the weaponry becomes an integral part of mainstream military doctrine—is the armament dynamic. If military doctrine evolves, weaponry may become obsolete and require replacement. However, disarmament—removing an arms category from military doctrine (weapon destruction is just one, very visible aspect of this process)—leaves a gap in that military doctrine, and consequently in the national security posture. That gap needs to be filled by alternative, but legitimate security means.

So, through the process of identifying and defining the types of weaponry that should be at the heart of the envisaged disarmament regime for the Middle East, the members of the technical working group will acquire deep understanding of the different ways their removal from national arsenals may affect security policies and threat perceptions. For each state in the region, the consequences will be seen to be different, even when considering similar types of weapon technology.

Understanding those gaps with all their implications for national security and military doctrine of the states in the Middle East may enable the technical experts to propose various measures to enhance confidence in the disarmament process and its outcomes. Such measures can operate on different levels, e.g., verification of compliance with the various elements of the regional agreement, confidence and security-building steps to demonstrate that updates to national security policies and military doctrine are not intended to destabilise the agreement, and so on. If the initial discussions could yield such an outcome, the technical experts would be in a position to lift their considerations on to the next level.

Verification too is defining

Setting up a verification system is a long and complex process, during which technical feasibility and political ambitions need to be reconciled with each other. During the negotiation process people will test ideas in the field. Evaluation reports will influence proposals at the negotiating table, and the outcomes of the discussions need to get tested again in practice. States with antagonistic relationships towards each other have to get their hands dirty—together. The whole exercise is one of building confidence, not just among nations or their the diplomats and technical experts, but also in the system they are trying to set up. Determining what can be verified; calibrating the need of intrusiveness of the process in order to achieve a relevant level of deterrence against cheating; building a layered system of procedures to address compliance concerns at the lowest possible level of confrontation, but with the necessary teeth to establish the facts of non-compliance and to compel the transgressor to restore the integrity of the regional disarmament treaty.

These tasks are not easy, and politically fraught, particularly if one of the negotiating partners demands 100% verifiability up front. Furthermore, just as definitions of weapons (if they exist at all) are framed in support of the treaty objectives, the verification regime will be unique to a specific treaty, and—one may say—to the moment when the treaty was being negotiated. And just to add to the complexity: whereas current global treaties focus on a single weapon category, the disarmament framework for the Middle East will have to address unequal distribution of weapon capacities and asymmetrical doctrinal functions assigned to the respective arms categories simultaneously.

Here too, the independent working group of technical experts could undertake important preparatory intellectual work. In the previous section, I already outlined how trying to define the weapon categories would already yield important insights into threat perceptions and the ways in which disarmament might affect national security policies. These insights lay out the foundations for a regional verification system: what would be needed to convince states that at a minimum they will not incur a security deficit from participating in the disarmament process? They are to guide the experts’ discussions on verification throughout.

The three core global treaties—the NPT, BTWC and CWC—operate different systems of verification or confidence building, and each system serves different goals. The NPT even relies on an already functioning organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose original goal was the promotion of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, rather than stopping weapons proliferation or eliminating them altogether. As a consequence of the periods during which they were being negotiated, the three treaties differ widely in their verification ambitions. Consequently, the perception of their utility to disarmament in the Middle East today will vary considerably.

Notwithstanding, the non-governmental technical experts would be able to draw on a rich body of negotiation and implementation experience in both bilateral (US–Soviet/Russian treaties on nuclear weapons reductions) and multilateral frameworks, including regional agreements (e.g., nuclear weapon-free zones) and global conventions (e.g., CWC). One way for them to try and determine the requirements for a treaty eliminating non-conventional weaponry in the Middle East might be to formulate clusters of questions.

The most advanced and developed disarmament treaty, the CWC, could serve as departure point. A possible outline might thus look as follows:

  • What does ‘disarmament’ entail?
    • Comprehensive prohibition on the (research?), development, acquisition, possession and use of a discrete weapon category
      • Zero: no residual stockpiles allowed (e.g., for deterrence)
      • Backward dimension: destruction of existing weapon holdings
      • Forward dimension: prevention of future armament
    • Equal rights and obligations for all States Parties
      • Balance between disarmament and development? This is a important dimension of global disarmament, (e.g., for universalisation by offering states that do not possess the weaponry in question tangible absolute gains in return for joining the prohibition). The question has to be raised whether this dimension has any utility in the Middle East context, and if so, in what areas proposed measures could be the most useful.
      • Security guarantees (defence, protection, assistance). In the CWC framework this is a right for all states parties, and the assistance is offered and delivered by other states parties via the international organisation or through bilateral cooperation arrangements. In the Middle East setting, arrangements will have to made to ensure that no party feels discriminated against. In addition, to what extent can extra-regional guarantees can be incorporated into the regional disarmament framework? Once again, one must remain conscious of the fact that in this domain the CWC is far more advanced that either the BTWC or NPT, and that the guarantees must cover all weapon categories and be extended to all Middle Eastern states signing up to the regional disarmament agreement. However, if an arrangement could be drafted, it would be one way of addressing potential threats posed by, among others, proxy fighters.
    • Mechanisms to enhance transparency and ensure compliance with treaty provisions
      • International, treaty specific organisation with its own inspectorate
      • Shared responsibilities between international organisation and states parties (national authority)
      • Domestic legislation for verification implementation
      • Confidence and security-building measures; voluntary transparency measures
  • What does one wish to verify?
    • Weapon destruction
      • Warheads, bombs, shells and other means of dissemination + their payload?
      • Delivery systems? This will require demarcation of what is specific to the weapon. For instance, will verification apply only to a chemical munition, or will it also cover the artillery piece or warplane?
      • Other specifically designed equipment for use with the weapons (e.g., filling equipment for chemical munitions)
    • Facilities and installations
      • Storage and launch sites
      • Research & production facilities
      • Testing sites
      • Any other elements to ensure termination of the weapon programmes
    • Conversion of facilities to peaceful uses?
      • May require special verification provisions
    • Non-military weapon-relevant activities and facilities
      • Essential for prevention of future armament: this should cover possible civilian production plants with capacities relevant to the proscribed weapons, even if they have no previous link to armaments
      • Equitable application to all states in the region
      • Applicable not just to the transfer of dual-use materials

These questions just outline the contours of a multilayered framework for discussing transparency, verification and compliance in a regional disarmament treaty. They need further elaboration, supplementation and assessment of relevancy. The independent technical experts could thus already progress significantly in identifying feasible measures useful to the Middle East. Their suggestions will still require practical testing in real-life situations or simulation exercises, which in turn will lead to further refinement.

In addition, whether to design a single integrated treaty covering all weapon categories or separate arrangements for each arms class could well be one of the experts’ most consequential recommendations.

And what about the existing global treaties?

In working groups or at seminars I have often wondered whether proceeding from the existing weapon control treaties—the NPT, BTWC and CWC—is the best way forward to achieve the disarmament objective laid out in the final documents of the NPT Review Conferences. This is not to suggest that those treaties have no role to play. Quite on the contrary, all states in the Middle East should join them eventually—sooner, rather than later.

The previous sections have already touched upon the different goals and the different toolboxes they each have. Irrespective of the uneven practices these have created over the years and decades, the crucial point to bear in mind is that all the states that are currently party to the respective conventions have determined each for themselves that the weapon categories in question have no role in their respective military doctrines. Either they did not possess those types of weapons and had no intention of acquiring them or they proceeded to adjust their security policies and military doctrines during the negotiations or while preparing to join the treaties. These adjustments some states in the Middle East have not yet made with regard to certain arms categories, and hence ratifying or acceding to the treaties will appear too great a security risk to take. Several steps outlined above are intended to clarify and foster mutual understanding of the thinking about those weapons, and hence to come to possible solutions that do not compromise core security requirements of each of the regional partners involved.

A second reason why my current thinking favours to bring in the treaties at a later stage of the diplomatic process is that they do not necessarily strive for the goals ambitioned by the Middle East disarmament agreement. The NPT is a case in point: if the nuclear disarmament of Israel is a central objective of the whole exercise, is a non-proliferation treaty the best way forward? On the surface, the issue appears straightforward: Israel joins the NPT, which it cannot do as a nuclear weapon state, hence it must disarm. That disarmament process Israel must therefore necessarily complete before acceding to the NPT. However, what are the modalities for such disarmament, particularly since it would be a unilateral process? Should Israel declare its stockpile in advance, but how would this match its standing policy of opaqueness (which implies no declared numbers or types of nuclear weapons)? Who would oversee the disarmament process, as the IAEA, of which Israel is a member, is not competent to supervise weapon destruction? Who would certify that the totality of Israel’s arsenal has been destroyed? And so on.

Some nuclear experts have suggested in working group discussions that the most feasible political and technical solution would be a process analogous to South Africa’s joining the NPT: unilateral destruction of the weapon holdings without any formal declarations of the nature of the stockpile, and an almost instantaneous verification of Israel’s initial declaration of all its nuclear materials and facilities under the comprehensive safeguards agreement that would immediately follow Israel’s deposit of its instrument of accession.

However, South Africa’s nuclear weapon stockpile had far less to do with sub-regional geopolitical or military competition than Israel’s in the Middle East. So, the question about supplementary security guarantees arises again. The working group of non-governmental experts could again look into various types of modalities, perhaps taking some of their inspiration from the present P5+1 discussions on enhancing transparency for Iran’s nuclear activities. If successful, that agreement might in fact hold the keys to various solutions for disarmament questions in the Middle East.

Other small steps to advance the disarmament agenda

In addition to the various elements outlined above, the technical experts could conceivably also look into a variety of confidence and security-building measures that prepare the ground for disarmament in the Middle East.

  • A regional multilateral or plurilateral ‘no use’ agreement (which is different from a no first use accord often discussed in the context of nuclear weapon control) with regard to each and all of the weapon categories to be included in zone free from non-conventional weaponry. Such an accord or series of accords would have the value of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that prohibits the use in armed conflict of chemical and biological weapons, but also cover nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In and of themselves they would not amount to arms reductions or disarmament, but push the weapon categories in question towards the periphery of military doctrine, i.e., less likely to be considered for use in case of a conflict between one or more states in the Middle East. Before rejecting the suggestion as wishful thinking, one should take into consideration that before signing up the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 1993, several continents and sub-continents with regional tensions signed up to such a ‘prenuptial’. These include the Mendoza Declaration on the Complete Prohibition of Chemical and Biological Weapons of 5 September 1991 between Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the Declaration on the Renunciation of Weapons of Mass Destruction signed by Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela in Cartagena De Indias, Columbia, also on 5 September 1991, and the Indo-Pakistani Joint Declaration on Complete Prohibition of Chemical Weapons of 19 August 1992. The latter agreement is particularly instructive for the Middle East, because India eventually declared a CW stockpile of some 1,000 metic tonnes to the great surprise of global public opinion, Pakistan and, for that matter, many Indian diplomats and officials.
  • A second type of security and confidence-building measure could be a non-aggression pact among the negotiating partners. While it might not be able to prevent altercations among the negotiating parties, it could erect sufficient barriers to prevent provocations from sliding into armed conflicts.
  • Several Arab states have added the reservation that their adhesion to multilateral weapon control treaties (1925 Geneva Protocol, NPT, BTWC) does not imply the recognition of the state of Israel. They could offer to withdraw them, a symbolic gesture that better reflects relations in the region today, but would take away a source of Israeli opposition to regional disarmament. Iran too could drop the standard practice of making the final intervention at each of the BTWC and CWC meetings (and likely other ones too) that the decision by all states parties authorising Israel’s participation as an observer does not amount to the recognition of the state.
  • The working group of experts might even exploit existing cross-border initiatives (civil society, industry, science) that contribute to trust and confidence building, transparency enhancement, many of which exist in one form or another if the field of the life sciences (e.g., disease surveillance, vaccine development, etc.).

By way of conclusion

I personally think that if we are to move ahead in securing a Middle East free from non-conventional weapons we must focus on a few outcomes that appear within reach and yet avoid pre-set end goals. There is no paradox in the thought. The focus on  attainable and conceivable outcomes avoids mental, emotional and political gridlock. The avoidance of pre-set end goals allows for the plotting of a more general course, whereby the dialogue may uncover so-called ‘enabling platforms’, i.e., intermediate achievements that create options not previously thought of, or previously considered impossible.

Even ahead of any formal disarmament process for the Middle East, I am convinced that civil society constituencies—particularly international science and technology-based initiatives, such as the Pugwash Conferences, among others—can address purely technical (rather than political) questions on the foundations for regional disarmament. And come up with useful suggestions.

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

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One Comment on “Talking disarmament for the Middle East”

  1. Dan Joyner says:

    This is an extremely important commentary, Jean-Pascal, and I hope that people with influence in governments read it. I think what you are proposing is definitely the best way to proceed – as you say to achieve the things that can be achieved, even while disagreement exists on some of the bigger questions. Sometimes initiatives, once begun, have a way of creating opportunities for broader success than were conceived of before they were begun.

    Notwithstanding this full endorsement of your ideas here, I am one who remains quite regrettably pessimistic about the prospects for a ME WMD FZ as long as Israel maintains its nuclear weapons stockpile, which seems as certain a thing at this point as death and taxes.

    I would not, however, endorse Tarek’s view that Israel’s nuclear stockpile somehow justifies or even makes rational the maintenance of chemical weapons stockpiles by Arab countries, including Syria and Egypt.

    Chemical weapons are no meaningful deterrent to the use of nuclear weapons by Israel or by any other country. CW in fact have no real military uses (i.e. superior to conventional weapons) other than their usefulness for terrorizing civilian populations, which is a wholly illegitimate and unlawful use for weapons under the law of armed conflict, and is by all civilized standards immoral as well.

    So again, there is no rational reason, military or otherwise, for Arab countries to maintain their CW stockpiles, having to do with international security. In fact, I would see the maintenance of CW stockpiles as useful for only one thing – government quelling of domestic dissent through fear of use of CW on rebellious civilians. I would hope that this is not a signal that Egypt, or any other state, wants to send to the outside world.


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