Countering the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction is one of the most important challenges we face in building a peaceful and secure 21st century. Whilst public attention is always focussed on nuclear issues, that doesn't just mean countering those illegal weapons programmes.
It also means eradicating the threat of chemical and biological weapons. Nowhere is the challenge more urgent and complex than in the Middle East. Often the picture can seem bleak, particularly in the light of the concerns over Iran's nuclear programme laid out in the recent IAEA report. But I believe in recent months, green shoots have emerged which give some tentative grounds for optimism.
An excellent example of this is the attitude of the new Libyan regime. This week I returned from Tripoli where I met with several Ministers from the recently appointed temporary government. They reassured me that the new Libyan authorities recognise fully the importance of making a new start by dealing with WMD matters in a responsible and transparent manner.
They will require international help and we are working with key partners, including the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to provide assistance and advice.
Similarly, in September, States in the Middle East accepted Finland and Jaako Laajava's offer to host and facilitate a conference in 2012 on creating a WMD free zone in the Middle East.
While this might be a small step, just a few years ago the very idea of holding such a conference would have been unthinkable. The fact we are making cautious progress towards it gives me further grounds to be positive. A successful conference presents the region with a rare opportunity for deep and genuine discussion about proliferation issues and it is essential that this opportunity is recognised and seized upon by all parties.
Beyond the Middle East, we and our international partners are working on several fronts to counter the spread of these weapons. Before arriving in Libya I attended the five-yearly review conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in Geneva. This was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. It has 165 State Parties - a significant achievement and one which is of great importance in efforts to control WMD. While great efforts are spent stopping countries who violate the agreements, it is easy to forget the vast majority of states who quietly abide by their commitments and work to support these vital international instruments which help safeguard our security.
On top of this, every day diplomats and scientist around the world are working to overcome the political, diplomatic and technical challenges associated with countering the spread of WMD. Just last month the UK hosted a meeting of technical experts in Edinburgh to discuss detection of covert nuclear weapons tests, and last week we held an international workshop on our long standing initiative with Norway on the technical challenges of verifying nuclear disarmament.
However, we are under no illusions as to the scale of the challenges ahead. Political will and mutual confidence will play a key part in any significant moves forward, and they need to be in great supply. While the concept of the Middle East Conference sounds straightforward, ensuring that all the right players are around the table next year will be no mean feat. The new Libyan regime will require all the support we can give it.
Despite the success of the BTWC, there are still 31 states that remain outside the Convention, some of them in the Middle East region. Foremost in our minds is Iran's nuclear programme which continues to threaten global security. Whilst considering these serious concerns it is important that we don't forget to nurture the green shoots which will provide the foundations of lasting stability, and build the confidence we all need.
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