Coordinator, Host Set for Mideast Meeting

Daniel Horner

The organizers of a planned 2012 conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East have chosen a Finnish diplomat as the coordinator and Finland as the host country, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an Oct. 14 press statement.

The long-awaited announcement, which named Jaakko Laajava, Finland’s undersecretary of state for foreign and security policy, as the coordinator, is the first major decision on the conference since the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) agreed during their 2010 review conference to hold the meeting. (See ACT, June 2010.)

Under the terms of the review conference’s final document, the conveners of the 2012 meeting are the secretary-general and the three countries that had co-sponsored a 1995 resolution calling for a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone—Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Ban’s Oct. 14 announcement was a joint statement by him and those three countries.

In statements at the United Nations that day, the announcement was welcomed by several countries, including Qatar on behalf of the Arab Group. According to the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document, the decisions on the host country and coordinator are to be made “in consultation with the States of the region.”

In an Oct. 24 interview, a U.S. official called the decision “a big landmark on the road to 2012” and said it showed that the countries involved could work together to reach agreement. Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations Maged Abdelaziz, in an Oct. 27 interview, also welcomed the decision.

In July, Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands were announced as candidates to host the conference. Interviews in August with diplomats involved in preparing for the meeting strongly indicated that Finland was the front-runner. (See ACT, September 2011.) However, the final decision apparently was more complicated.

Package Deal

The three co-sponsors pushed for the two elements to be linked, that is, for the coordinator to be from the host country. In the interview, the U.S. official said it was important to have this arrangement because the coordinator will have to work very closely with officials from the host country. Having a coordinator from a different country could lead to inefficient “separate tracks,” he said.

The Arab Group had insisted, as one of its conditions, that the coordinator be someone of at least the ministerial level. The group ultimately accepted Laajava after “thorough consultations” with Ban and the three co-sponsors, Abdelaziz said. One factor influencing the countries in the group was that they did not want to delay the process, which needs to be “rapidly moving,” he said.

The U.S. official also said that, after multiple meetings on the issue, the participants were determined to reach agreement on the coordinator and host because they “didn’t want to lose all the momentum [they] had gained.” On the question of Laajava’s diplomatic stature, he said that “though not everyone knows who he is, he can get the job done” and is a better choice than someone who would make “a splashy headline but wouldn’t be able to deliver.” Abdelaziz also said Laajava was a “good candidate” with “the right qualifications.”

Even with a key issue now settled, Abdelaziz and the U.S. official were cautious about predicting when the conference would take place. Abdelaziz said the timing is “an open question” because of the amount of preparation still required. At such conferences, the participants typically work out 75 to 80 percent of the final document beforehand, he said. It would be a mistake to hold the conference too early and risk having “fighting at the conference,” he said.

The U.S. official also emphasized the importance of having the conference “done right.” He suggested that a reasonable guess would be that it would be held in the second half of 2012.

Upcoming Forum

A potential indicator of the prospects for the conference, the U.S. official said, is an International Atomic Energy Agency forum, scheduled for Nov. 21-22, to discuss the experiences of existing nuclear-weapon-free zones and how they “could be relevant to the Middle East,” as the agency’s Sept. 2 announcement put it.

Emphasizing that the forum had no “direct link” to the 2012 meeting, the U.S. official said it was an opportunity to discuss many of the issues that will figure prominently there without “infus[ing] the forum with all the politics” of next year’s event. The forum has the potential to show that the countries involved in the issue can have “a constructive dialogue” or, alternatively, that they have “a long way to go,” he said.

Abdelaziz said another important element for the 2012 event is increased involvement by nongovernmental organizations. He noted that the section of the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document dealing with the Middle East meeting encourages involvement by these groups.