UN palace

By Jenny Nielsen, Research Analyst, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Egypt has walked out of talks on the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) this week, over the slow progress on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (MEWMDFZ).

The unprecedented move presents a serious headache for the non-proliferation regime. Announcing his delegation’s withdrawal from the Preparatory Committee to the 2015 NPT Review Conference (2013 NPT PrepCom) on Monday, Egyptian Ambassador Hisham Badr warned that despite being a strong supporter of the NPT regime, Cairo was dissatisfied with the international community’s ‘lack of seriousness’ in establishing an MEWMDFZ and ‘very concerned about the ramification of the non-fulfilment of commitments on the credibility and sustainability of the NPT regime’.

Egypt’s dramatic walk-out revolves around the implementation of the 1995 Middle East Resolution. This first promised Arab states a nuclear-weapons free zone in return for their support of the indefinite extension of the NPT at that year’s NPT Review and Extension Conference. A lack of progress since has created enormous frustration within the Arab League and among other states parties to the NPT.

The fact that Israel, which is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, remains outside the NPT is a key security concern for its regional neighbours, and one driver behind the push for a weapons-free zone.

An effort was made to advance matters at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, whose final action plan endorsed the convening of a 2012 conference on establishing a zone free of nuclear and other WMD (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. Eventually appointed in October 2011, the conference’s facilitator, Ambassador Jaakko Laajava of Finland, has worked hard to get all regional parties to meet in Helsinki. The postponement of the conference with no future date was announced separately in November 2012 by the facilitator and the co-convenors (the US, UK and Russia  and the UN Secretary General), hinting at differences in their positions. This appears to have tried Arab patience even further.

The Arab League debated boycotting this fortnight’s PrepCom in the Palais des Nations (pictured) in Geneva, and Egypt only took the decision to attend at the last minute. Egypt and other Arab League members said that despite their reservations, they would ‘engage and listen’.

Although Egypt was the only Arab state to leave the meeting, its fellow Arab League members may not have been particularly surprised. Egypt says a MEWMDFZ remains ‘a central component of regional, Arab and Egyptian national security’ and has begun referring to such a zone as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the NPT.

Even before his delegation’s exit on Monday afternoon, Ambassdor Badr was saying that: ‘We cannot continue to attend meetings and agree on outcomes that do not get implemented, yet to be expected to abide by the concession we gave for this outcome.’

The withdrawal by such a key NPT party is a significant and serious challenge to the non-proliferation regime. Essentially, the Egyptian delegation is questioning the NPT’s integrity.

Both Cairo and the Arab League have said that the 2010 Action Plan is not open for renegotiation. At this fortnight’s PrepCom, the Arab League submitted a working paper on the implementation of the 1995 Middle East Resolution. The league’s Ambassador Wael al-Assad insisted that it would ‘not tolerate any attempt at shifting blame to us’. He ‘declared in the strongest language possible’ that the postponement of the MEWMDFZ conference was a ‘clear violation of commitments undertaken in 2010 and to a consensus document’.

The convenors of the 2012 Helsinki conference have expressed their regret over its postponement butreaffirmed their support for the facilitator’s efforts to eventually convene a meeting. The US delegation to the PrepCom in particular insisted the postponement of the 2012 conference did not constitute ‘a breach of the Action Plan as some suggest’.

‘We missed an important deadline—but we have not yet missed the opportunity to transform the security environment of the region’ said US Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Countryman.

Countryman also underlined that ‘the responsibility to hold the conference does not fall solely to the Convenors and Facilitator’, stressing that ‘leadership must also come from the states of the region’.

Meanwhile, the Russian delegation at this fortnight’s PrepCom proposed setting a date for the conference ‘in the second half of December 2013’ and stressed that the ‘proposed consultations do not at all substitute the idea of convening the conference’.

Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov of Russia further called for regional parties to ‘as far as possible, to put off emotions, abandon mutual claims, and to focus instead on business-like discussions of specific issues in the spirit of pragmatism’.

Given current allegations of chemical weapon use in Syria, decades of regional frustration with the double-standard posed by the Israeli nuclear programme, coupled with Israeli concern about Iranian nuclear activities, this may be a very tall order.

That said, if the Helsinki conference does not take place in 2013, the rest of the 2015 NPT review process (the 2014 NPT PrepCom and the 2015 NPT Review Conference) will probably see greater controversy.

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