If nuclear weapons were used in a regional conflict - no matter where - the consequences would be international. Similarly, any progress toward making one country or region nuclear weapons-free will not only increase regional security but also assist international peace and security and global efforts to marginalize and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Making the world nuclear weapons-free and achieving a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (MEWMDFZ) are the stated objectives of many leaders, from U.S. President Barack Obama to governments in the League of Arab States and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Even Israel joins the consensus on an annual United Nations General Assembly resolution on "Establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East," though it votes against a more specific resolution on proliferation risks. The political interface is complicated, since some make one kind of disarmament conditional on another, some use "after you" arguments for resolving broader peace and security issues first, while some treat both the regional-incremental and comprehensive objectives as practically impossible ("not in my lifetime").

This essay looks at the regional-international nexus, and makes the case that these objectives are mutually interdependent and should not be treated as linearly sequenced: Removing obstacles and making progress toward the regional and international disarmament objectives are most effectively pursued in parallel. Civil society should therefore work with governments to achieve a global treaty to ban nuclear weapons, while supporting efforts to promote peace, justice and human rights, and eliminate all WMD from the Middle East, ideally through regional negotiations on a MEWMDFZ.

International Commitments and Regional Implications

Since 2011, many Middle East countries have been experiencing profound challenges and changes. While it is difficult to predict how the civil society movements for human rights, democracy and greater freedom will develop, in the ensuing political shifts and upheavals there are likely to be heightened periods of instability and risk. In these circumstances it should be obvious to all that nuclear weapons and military-capable nuclear programs pose even more serious threats than usual - not only to countries in the Middle East, but to the world.

Chemical and biological munitions may also pose regional threats, but such programs are mostly residual as the weapons have been internationally prohibited under the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). It is undoubtedly necessary to ensure compliance and implementation of existing obligations relating to all weapons of mass destruction, but at least universally applicable laws are in place for biological and chemical armaments and it is widely recognized that any use of such weapons would be treated as crimes against humanity and war crimes. By contrast, the central legal instrument governing nuclear arms is the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which does not address nuclear weapons use or provide a universal, non-discriminatory prohibition on possessing, deploying, transporting or stockpiling nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the NPT divides the world into nuclear "haves" and "have-nots," which has resulted in the counterproductive situation that nuclear weapons are regarded as projecting political value and status for their possessors in ways that other weapons do not.

The 2010 Review Conference of the NPT was hard-fought and succeeded in getting commitments on both regional and international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The central agreement - on which the success of the 2010 Review Conference hinged - was to "convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all states of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states." The 2012 Conference was to be convened by the UN secretary-general and the NPT depositaries (Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), who would appoint a facilitator and host country for the conference, taking the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East as the terms of reference.

Finland was chosen as the host country, and the Finnish ambassador Jaakko Laajava was appointed facilitator. Despite his hard work and indefatigable consultations and efforts, the designated 2012 Conference did not take place that year (and at the time of writing there is still no date or agreement for it to be held in 2013).1 In protest, Egypt withdrew its delegation halfway through the 2013 Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom) of NPT states in Geneva, which caused shudders of anxiety among many governments.2 Although some have sought to play down the significance of Egypt's walk out, others are predicting that failure to convene an effective conference on the Middle East in the next year could lead to a showdown at the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

Since the 1960s, the NPT has been widely described as the cornerstone of international non-proliferation and disarmament. Efforts by the Arab States and NAM allies to exert pressure on Israel and its NPT ally, the U.S., have played a growing role in the NPT Review Conferences, underscoring the regional-international security relationship, at least from the perspective of Arab states. Without the 1995 resolution it is doubtful the NPT could have been indefinitely extended by consensus. Their decision to pursue a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) -in the Middle East -which was subsequently broadened to encompass all WMDs - drew its legitimacy from Article VII of the NPT and the experiences of states in other regions. Article VII acknowledged that states also had the right to conclude "regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories." Five nuclear weapons-free-zone (NWFZ) treaties have been negotiated, covering Latin America and the Caribbean3, the South Pacific, Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. These separately negotiated legal treaties were pursued in parallel with the NPT, proving useful for embedding regional disarmament and constraining nuclear ambitions.

At the same time, international disarmament objectives and steps have become more explicit in the NPT context, though not yet vigorously or comprehensively implemented. The 2010 NPT Review Conference addressed nuclear weapons use for the first time in a groundbreaking paragraph that framed the disarmament action points:

The Conference expresses its deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirms the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.4

Further framing paragraphs referred to the responsibility of "all states … to make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons," and referenced the UN secretary-general's plan for nuclear disarmament, which recognized the need for additional treaties to bring about, embed and implement nuclear disarmament.5

In its "Action 5," the NPT 2010 final document renewed commitments to various steps that should be undertaken by the five treaty-defined "nuclearweapon states," which are also obliged to report on their implementation of these steps in 2014. The designated actions included overall reductions leading to the total elimination of all nuclear arsenals, further diminishing "the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies" and measures relating to preventing the use of nuclear weapons, lessening the danger of nuclear war, further reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons systems, enhancing transparency and reducing the risks of accidental use.6

While it is noticeable - and criticized by many non-nuclear NPT parties - that the nuclear disarmament actions in the 2010 final document are generally weaker than the "13 Steps" that had been adopted ten years earlier by the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the framing of the NPT requirements is now stronger, especially in terms of compliance with international humanitarian law and the clear goals of eliminating nuclear arsenals and achieving and maintaining a world free of nuclear weapons.

Though Israel is not a party to the NPT, Israeli nuclear weapons are an ever-present problem in all NPT meetings. In protecting Israel's perceived nuclear interests, the U.S. frequently finds itself in an anomalous and hypocritical position in which it tries to attack Iran (an NPT state party which does not have nuclear weapons, though it is vociferous in asserting its NPT "rights" under Article IV for a program which could provide military nuclear capabilities) while shielding Israel, a non-NPT party widely recognized as having some kind of nuclear arsenal, though its doctrines and arsenal configuration are opaque and undeclared.

In the context of the Cold War, the NPT served the world well. Nowadays, because of its history and structural flaws, it does not have the legal powers and capabilities to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, even though this is the overall objective of most NPT states parties. Due to its partial approach and creation of two categories of parties - called "nuclear-weapon states" and "non-nuclear-weapon states" - the NPT has not adequately delegitimized nuclear weapons. Failing to create a universal and sustainable norm against nuclear weapons, the NPT also enshrines incentives for developing nuclear fuel cycle programs and provides cover for a minority of governments to continue with doctrines, threats and operations of nuclear use. Due to these counterproductive factors, the NPT presides over an indefinite future of nuclear programs and weapons modernization and deployment. This reality causes specific problems in the Middle East, where Israel has for many years been in a relatively comfortable position as a "free-rider" on the NPT regime, benefitting considerably without being legally constrained by the treaty.7

The Regional-International Nexus for the Middle East

More than at any previous time in human history, today's nations are interdependent - environmentally, economically and in political and security terms. Nuclear capabilities are frequently "used" for the purposes of deterrence and power projection. Any actual detonation would have global consequences. Such a use would cause immediate local devastation, with catastrophic blast, heat, fires, deaths, injuries and radiation effects.8 Through the logic of current nuclear doctrines of deterrence9, the detonation of one nuclear weapon could well result in retaliatory launches and a probable "use them or lose them" escalation into regional or transnational nuclear war. If there was a chance to pull back without such escalation, the shock of an accidental or intentional detonation of nuclear weapons might be enough to give political impetus to accelerate international nuclear disarmament efforts and get a global agreement to ban nuclear weapons.

The second of those outcomes would be greatly preferred to the first and could be achieved more swiftly through political means, without resulting in mass casualties and suffering. Scientists may be able to calculate the probable impacts of different levels of nuclear detonations in terms of their regional and global health and environmental effects, but the broader humanitarian, social and political consequences are more difficult to gauge and may escalate. To avoid furthering the human misery that nuclear detonations cause, it would be far better to preemptively jolt governments into dealing with the threats posed by nuclear armaments through international political strategies. After decades of nuclear disarmament campaigning and several partial treaties, new partnerships are developing between nuclear weapons-free states and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)10 to mobilize for a global treaty to ban and eliminate all nuclear weapons and military nuclear programs.

In debates on nuclear disarmament, regional NWFZ initiatives are sometimes treated as more achievable incremental steps than a comprehensive ban. This was true in the past and for some regions, but is not necessarily the case for the remaining zones of nuclear insecurity, especially the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, where nuclear weapons and doctrines are accorded high salience in the security policies of one or more states. In relation to the geographical zone, one of the first questions when considering a NWFZ, the geostrategic location of the Middle East demonstrates why a limited regional zone may appear more achievable if international strategies are being pursued at the same time. The general view is that the proposed MEWMDFZ should encompass all the Arab states plus Iran and Israel. Iran and Israel, however, look with concern toward nuclear-armed Pakistan and India. India vies with nuclear-armed China on its borders, while China wants to be sure that any steps are taken in conjunction with others in the "P5," notably Russia and the U.S. north of the Middle East are nuclear-armed NATO and Russia. Turkey sits at a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East/Asia, and is one of five NATO countries to host U.S. nuclear weapons, while France and the UK deploy nuclear weapons which they appear bent on retaining and modernizing as long as they can.

Reframing Helsinki with Humanitarian Disarmament Progress

What, then, is the relationship between the Helsinki Conference, the NPT and current humanitarian disarmament initiatives, and what further can be done to free the Middle East of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction?

Focusing on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons is not a panacea, but this approach makes it much more difficult for Israel and other nuclear-armed states to avoid questions and ignore disarmament pressures. Previously, with the U.S. inside NPT meetings protecting the Israeli state's perceived interests, the non-proliferation regime suited Israeli governments, especially once its neighbors had all acceded to the treaty. That calculus has begun to change, under pressure from both the Iranian nuclear program (which Israel perceives as a threat that the NPT is not preventing) and Arab League initiatives such as the Helsinki Conference, designed to put Iran, Israel and its U.S. ally under greater pressure.

The calculus is also changing for a growing number of Arab states, which had invested considerable political capital in the NPT, only to see their various strategies be undermined or downgraded. The failure to convene the 2012 conference is now causing a fundamental rethink in a number of states.

The Arab States have made many proposals over the years, from the 1995 Resolution to the 2010 action points, via the 2000 Thirteen Steps on nuclear disarmament, in which Egypt played a major role as a leading member of the Arab League as well as of the New Agenda Coalition. Most recently, in a detailed working paper submitted to the 2013 NPT PrepCom, the Arab states identified what they would like to see in the agenda and working methods for the Helsinki Conference, including the issues they want to be addressed and what should be covered in the outcome document. The expectations are high and narrow, with emphasis on nuclear weapons. At the same time, the paper warns that prospects for a successful NPT Review Conference in 2015 are directly linked with "the convening of the Conference in 2013 and its realization of perceptible success through the initiation of a negotiation process within a specific time frame to achieve that zone free of weapons of mass destruction."11

History teaches that such zero-sum approaches tend to result in stalemate and failure. The region's strategic location and interconnected security anxieties make it difficult to see how a purely localized nonproliferation/ arms control approach could succeed. Without ostensibly conceding their long-standing positions on a MEWMDFZ, a growing number of Middle East states are hedging their bets by engaging in humanitarian disarmament strategies as well, with the aim of changing the discourse and undermining the value attached to nuclear weapons from other angles. Egypt was an original signatory of the 2012 humanitarian disarmament statement. By 2013, eleven Arab states had co-sponsored: Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia and Yemen.

It is clear from a growing range of scientific studies that any regional use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East (or, indeed, South Asia or Europe) would have devastating consequences for the whole region, affecting health, climate, food, water, humanitarian assistance and provision of food, water, medicines and blood supplies, shelter and other necessities, with the likelihood that communications, commerce and social and economic infrastructures would collapse. Given the geographic location, it is impossible to imagine that nuclear weapons could be used in the region without there being catastrophic "blowback" consequences for all the people living in Israel and Palestine - and far beyond. In today's interconnected world, even a "limited" use of nuclear weapons would cause devastating global as well as regional consequences.12

As efforts are continuing in the hope of convening the Helsinki Conference before 2015 and starting a process towards negotiating an MEWMDFZ, it will be important to move from zero-sum to positive-sum integrative approaches that address not only the technical challenges of creating the zone but seek to meet security concerns and find shared security solutions. These and other issues should be addressed in track one-and-ahalf and track two meetings involving civil society from the region and beyond. Instead of focusing only on the zone issues, it would be useful to establish talks on three groups of issues in parallel: One track would focus on the technical, legal and political issues related to establishment of the MEWMDFZ; another could discuss principles for mutual security, human rights and humanitarian issues; while a third could address shared issues, involving resources, emergency responses in the event of nuclear, chemical, biological or other accidents or terrorism (state or non-state), and also economic, scientific, technological and environmental cooperation. These parallel confidence-building talks could be pursued in the run-up to the Helsinki Conference, if this is held, and it would make sense to establish such parallel tracks to take negotiations forward after the conference as well.

Another consistent approach that could help to bridge the arms control, security assurances and humanitarian elements would be to ensure that any use of nuclear weapons would be treated in national and international law as a crime against humanity and a war crime. This would effectively undermine nuclear threats and create a "positive security assurances" obligation on all states and people to render assistance to any nation that is threatened or attacked with nuclear weapons and also to apprehend and bring to justice anyone found responsible under law for threatening or using nuclear weapons, including those involved in supply, delivery and decision-making for any attack.

Finally, for the Helsinki Conference to take place and be constructive in creating the conditions for a WMDFZ in the Middle East, all the relevant states must recognize that this will be in their national security interests. Chemical and biological weapons are already prohibited and stigmatized, though not yet fully eliminated. By contrast, in Israel and other nucleararmed countries, there is widespread public acceptance and support for the state's nuclear policies and weapons on grounds that they are legal, legitimate and important for security, deterrence and military freedom of action. This is a major impediment to disarmament. Addressing the humanitarian consequences cuts through those justifications.

1 Refs to relevant chapters in PIJ.
2 See Rebecca Johnson, "The NPT's "unacceptable and continuous failure": Egypt walks out', openDemocracy, 1 May, 2013, npt%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cunacceptable-and-continuous-failure%E2%80%9D-egypt-walksout; Mahmoud Karem, 'Missed opportunities to rid the Middle East of WMD', openDemocracy, 24 June 2013, middle-east-of-wmd ; Stephanie Nebehay, 'U.S. regrets Egypt walk out at nuclear talks', Reuters, 30 April 2013,;
3 The 1967 Tlatelolco Treaty covering Latin American and the Caribbean was pursued in parallel with the NPT and concluded before the international treaty.
4 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, Part 1, UN Doc. para A, v.
5 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, Part 1, UN Doc. para B, iii.
6 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, Part 1, UN Doc. Action 5.
7 Israeli officials point out that there have been significant opportunity costs, such as the restrictions on Israel's access to nuclear technologies for energy and other civilian applications, but these have been weighed in nuclear policy decision-making.
8 Ref to Dr. Ira Helfand in the Knesset discussion appearing in the PIJ issue
9 This point is relevant to Israel, although little is publicly known of its nuclear doctrines and policies, and encompasses both the second strike nuclear deterrence policies of China and India as well as first-use nuclear deterrence doctrines of NATO states, Russia and Pakistan.
10 ICAN is a relatively new campaigning network that focuses specifically on mobilising for a ban on nuclear weapons. Founded in 2007 by IPPNW, ICAN now comprises NGO partners from all round the world, including Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Iran and the Gulf States. See
11 'Implementation of the 1995 resolution on the Middle East', working paper submitted by Tunisia on behalf of the States members of the League of Arab States, NPT/CONF.2013/PC.II/WP.34.
12 Relevant refs to Israeli info on this. Also: Beatrice Fihn (ed.), Unspeakable Suffering: The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, Reaching Critical Will, WILPF 2013,; Richard Moyes, Philip Webber and Greg Crowther, Humanitarian consequences: Short case study of the direct humanitarian impacts from a single nuclear weapon detonation on Manchester, UK. Article 36, February 2013. ; Frank Boulton, Blood Transfusion Services in the wake of the humanitarian and health crisis following multiple detonations of nuclear weapons, Medact, February 2013,,, ; John Ainslie, If Britain Fired Trident: The humanitarian catastrophe that one Trident-armed UK nuclear submarine could cause if used against Moscow, Scottish CND February 2013, www.banthebomb. org,; Philip Webber, The climatic impacts and humanitarian problems from the use of the UK's nuclear weapons, Scientists for Global Responsibility, February 2013 (revised from SGR Winter 2008),