Towards a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East

11/10/2012 13:20 BST | Updated 11/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Tucked away between the nuclear superpowers Russia and China - with nuclear-armed India and Pakistan hovering on the horizon - the countries of the Central Asian nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) have voluntarily eschewed nuclear weapons and entered a legal commitment to maintain that status. In such a potentially fraught region, many observers might expect that these countries, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, would opt for this most heavy-duty form of weaponry. But on the contrary, these states believe their security lies in their nuclear-free condition.

And they are not alone in that conviction. The majority of the world is now covered by

nuclear weapons-free zones which are increasingly regarded as highly successful forms of collective security. Currently, 115 states and 18 other territories belong to five regional treaties. The Treaty of Tlatelolco which came into force in Latin America in 1968, included two competing states, Argentina and Brazil. Both had large nuclear power industries with the capability to develop nuclear weapons. The Treaty provided the confidence-building framework and a norm of non-proliferation which defused the potential - and perceived need - for pursuing nuclear weapons systems.

The Treaty of Pelindaba came into force across Africa in 2009. Of particular significance was the inclusion of South Africa which had previously been a nuclear weapons state, giving up its nuclear weapons by 1991. It too concluded that it preferred the long-term benefits of collective security over the fetishised but ultimately insecure status of maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

The demand for such a zone to be established in the Middle East has been around for a long time - first proposed in 1974 by Iran. In 1990 the proposal was extended by Egypt to include other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), following serious concerns around chemical and biological warfare in the region. Then a resolution on achieving a WMD-free zone was adopted at the 1995 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. Subsequently the 2010 NPT Review Conference identified five steps necessary towards the goal of establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East: these included convening a regional conference in 2012 and appointing a facilitator.

So has the proposal for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East finally got legs? Many would say that the very idea is an absurd fantasy - that it cannot possibly be achieved, given the tensions and complexities that exist in the region. That fears about possible Iranian nuclear proliferation, together with the already existing Israeli nuclear arsenal, make the whole mix just too combustible. But it is precisely that combustibility which must drive the regional states and the international community towards a rational solution, towards a settlement which includes both nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Fortunately, major players on the international scene are making it their business to advance the process towards a Middle East WMD-free zone. This December, the Finnish government is following up the NPT's decision and hosting a conference in Helsinki, on behalf of the UN. Experienced diplomat and politician Jaakko Laajava is at the helm, working to bring together the region's states. Of course he has his work cut out - currently Israel is casting doubt on whether or not it will participate. But the process has to begin, and the US and UK must bring pressure to bear on Israel to play its part. The security of the region - and the world - demands no less. Jaako Laajava has asked for civil society input to the conference, so the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is taking him at his word.

Join us for our free international conference, Building towards a nuclear weapons-free Middle East: civil society input for a new Helsinki process, which draws together anti-nuclear activists from Britain and the Middle East to discuss input and raise the profile of this crucial issue, in London on Saturday 13October.