Banning chemical weapons is not enough

By Mostafa Elwi Saif, December 17, 2013

Since the 1950s, the Middle East has experienced numerous conflicts and has consistently been among the most unstable regions in the world. This has made it very difficult to establish a regional security system capable of providing stability and consolidating the norms, values, and institutions that are necessary for long-term peace in the region. In the absence of a functioning regional security system, nations in the Middle East have often responded to conflict by amassing weaponry—weapons of a conventional nature, but also nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Calls are now emerging to establish a chemical-weapon-free zone in the region. It would not be surprising if Western nations began exerting strong pressure on Middle Eastern countries to participate in such a zone once the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal is complete. But from Egypt’s point of view, the important thing is to rid the region of all weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological. The rights and interests of people across the region will not be served by establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone as long as Israel continues to possess nuclear weapons.

Major flaws. Because the Middle East lacks a regional security system, management of the region’s weapons of mass destruction has come in part through international arms control treaties and regimes. But the treaty regimes suffer from two core problems. One is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is at heart an arms control treaty rather than a disarmament convention. The conventions that cover chemical and biological weapons require nations to destroy their chemical and biological stockpiles shortly after they become parties to the agreements, but the NPT makes no such demands of nuclear weapon states. Indeed, the distinction between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states means that the treaty is discriminatory in the first place. The second major problem with the treaty regime is that Israel is not a party to the NPT—and, remarkably, is not a member of the conventions governing chemical and biological weapons. (Israel has signed, but not ratified, the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Because the treaty regime has failed so far to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons, significant effort has been expended on another disarmament approach—establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Since 1974, Egypt has consistently sponsored resolutions in the UN General Assembly calling for the establishment of such a zone. More significantly, the 1995 NPT Review Conference, which extended the treaty indefinitely, called for a zone to be established. That call was reiterated at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and practical steps toward establishing a zone were identified. But UN-sponsored efforts to convene a conference on this subject in late 2012 were aborted, with the US Department of State announcing that the meeting could not be convened because of "present conditions in the Middle East" and because "states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions." Five nuclear-weapon-free zones were established around the world between 1967 and 2006, but attempts to establish a zone for the Middle East have come to nothing (though a number of Middle Eastern countries are parties to the Treaty of Pelindaba, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone for Africa.)

Very little effort, meanwhile, has been expended toward establishing biological- or chemical-weapon-free zones in the Middle East. Why? In the case of biological weapons, technical problems such as the lack of an enforcement mechanism in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention have prevented the issue from gaining much attention. In the case of chemical weapons, an enforcement mechanism does exist—and in fact the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons performs its job very effectively (including in Syria).

Now that Damascus has acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Israel and Egypt are the only states in the region not to have done so. It is these two nations whose participation would be most crucial to establishing a chemical-weapon-free zone. Egypt would be happy to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention—if doing so meant ridding the region of all weapons of mass destruction. But Egyptians see little point in establishing a zone that is free of chemical weapons but not free of nuclear weapons. So the first step forward is for Israel to accede to all the major global arms agreements—most importantly, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

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