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CBW in Regional Disarmament in the Middle East and North Africa

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Just published (Open access):

Jean Pascal Zanders (2022): Chemical and Biological Weapons in Regional
Disarmament in the Middle East and North Africa, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament,
DOI: 10.1080/25751654.2022.2092368

From the introduction:

In November 2019, the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction held its first session. The new series of annual one-week meetings to eliminate non-conventional arms – essentially nuclear weapons (NW), and to a lesser extent chemical and biological weapons (CBW) – followed the acceptance by the First Committee of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) of Egypt’s proposal for a new conference on 22 December 2018 (UN General Assembly 2018). The COVID-19 pandemic forced postponement of the conference’s second meeting until November–December 2021.

The previous initiative had died in 2015 when the review conference of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ended without a consensus document. It had its origin in a resolution adopted at the 1995 NPT Review Conference, which formed part of the compromise to have the NPT’s duration extended indefinitely (NPT 2010). This resolution expanded the scope of earlier proposals for a nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ) for the Middle East to all so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). CBW thus entered the discussions. The document also addressed delivery systems – essentially ballistic missiles, a new element seemingly derived from UN Security Council (1991b) requiring Iraq to disclose ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 km as part of its disarmament obligations after the liberation of Kuwait (UN Security Council 1991b; Delory 2011; Hautecouverture and Mathiot, 2011). Finally, the regional disarmament initiative had to be verifiable. The new conference took the text of the 1995 resolution as its terms of reference.

This enlarged scope for regional disarmament in the Middle East presents significant challenges for the negotiating parties (Zanders 2012, 2015b, 2020; Zanders et al. 2014). First, a treaty aiming for a region exempt from a particular category of weaponry is disarmament, meaning that no party to that accord can develop, possess or stockpile such arms on territory under its control, or use them. In this sense, the goals differ significantly from arms control or non-proliferation. Any verification machinery – as required under the terms of reference – must oversee the destruction of existing stockpiles, ascertain that no residual weapon holdings remain, and prevent future development, production, and stockpiling of the proscribed weaponry. Second, the future treaty must meet those goals for several arms categories. No arms control or disarmament talks have had such an ambition. Even with CBW disarmament, negotiating parties came to accept the separation of biological weapons (BW) from chemical ones (CW). The historical record shows that states prefer distinct agreements for discrete weapon classes, even in pursuing general and complete disarmament as expressed in UN General Assembly (1959). Third, whereas the ambition for an NWFZ primarily addressed security relationships with a presumed nuclear-armed Israel, the distribution of other non-conventional weapon capacities throughout the Middle East is rather different. Moreover, multiple instances of CW use since the Second World War involved regional actors other than Israel. Fourth, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons all fall under different global or regional legal regimes each with specific types of obligations and arrangements to generate transparency and foster confidence in compliance. Building a zone exempt from non-conventional weaponry based on the global treaties risks creating an unbalanced security infrastructure for the region. Not all states in the Middle East are party to all of them.

Since the 2010 NPT Review Conference, which called for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and the indefinite postponement of a conference that was to be held no later than 2012, several studies have looked into the implications of a regional disarmament treaty involving three categories of non-conventional weaponry (Kane 2015; Müller, Melamud, and Péczelli 2013; Müller and Müller 2015; Taylor, Camilleri, and Hamel-Green 2013). In addition, several academic initiatives investigated and considered the implications of the proposed zone from political and technical angles, including the different approaches to verification (e.g. Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East, see Kubbig and Weidlich 2015). These works try to conceive of a regional zone free of non-conventional weaponry and delivery systems, an idea unique to the Middle East, look into how such a disarmament structure and its verification machinery might function, and how a new negotiation process might be initiated. Despite the expansion to BW and CW, the zone continues to be an initiative with its origins in the NPT. The NWFZs, their structure, the ways in which they impose further constraints on the acquisition and possession of NW beyond the NPT, and their relationship to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for verification, remains the kernel for future designs. While considered in significant detail, CBW and their control tend to be accommodated rather than integrated in proposed models.

This paper departs from CBW and looks how progress for these two arms categories could be achieved by drawing on experiences with their respective control regimes. The distribution of capabilities to acquire such weapons are different from NW. Global disarmament treaties lie at the heart of the prohibitory regime governing each arms category. However, contrary to NW, especially CW have been used in armed conflicts in the Middle East. Particularly Syria, backed by Russia, Iran and to a lesser extent China, challenges the international norm against chemical warfare. It stalls the verification process under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and blocks investigations into CW use since the country acceded to the convention in 2013. States party to the CWC suspended in consequence certain rights and privileges of Syria in April 2021.

To understand the implications of adding CBW to the regional disarmament objective, this paper first traces how CBW were inserted into the objective of a NWFZ for the Middle East. It then discusses the legal regimes governing CBW, their status in the region and implications for a holistic CBRN-free zone. The demand for effective verification poses multiple challenges because of the processes under the CBW disarmament treaties. The paper finally considers possible steps for building trust and confidence in the CBW area while negotiating the regional treaty framework.

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