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– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
January/February 2022
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Tuesday, January 11, 2022
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Work Continues on Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone

January/February 2022
By Mary Ann Hurtado and Julia Masterson

A UN conference has established an informal working committee to further deliberations on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

Mansour Al-Otaibi, Kuwait's ambassador to the United Nations, served as president of the second session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction during  proceedings in New York in December 2021. (Photo by Kuwait Mission to the UN)Participating states made the decision by consensus at the second annual session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, held Nov. 29–Dec. 3 in New York.

Although the action was a modest step, participants expressed hope that the committee would make progress on key issues in the time before the next annual conference and thus advance the long-sought goal of a treaty that would rid the Middle East of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The committee is to meet at least twice during the next year.

Establishment of the committee, which is open to all states in the region, also could help to stave off debate on the zone at the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which was delayed from this month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 1995, debate over a potential WMD-free zone in the Middle East has dominated and at times derailed discussions at NPT review conferences and in other disarmament forums.

The 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences reaffirmed support for the zone. But in 2015, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States opposed an Egyptian proposal to convene a future meeting to negotiate a Middle Eastern WMD-free-zone treaty, thereby preventing unanimous adoption of a final NPT conference document. (See ACT, June 2015.)

U.S. officials said then that the U.S. decision to block consensus stemmed from “unworkable conditions” and “arbitrary deadline[s]” in the Egyptian proposal.

U.S. views closely parallel those of Israel, which is not an NPT state-party but is the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal. Israel has rejected previous proposals to partake in a mandated, time-bound process to create a Middle Eastern zone without due attention to the security challenges facing the region. (See ACT, March 2020.)

In 2018, Egypt introduced a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for convening an annual UN conference to make progress on the zone in parallel with the NPT process. (See ACT, December 2018.) The inaugural session was held in November 2019, and the second session, set for November 2020, was canceled because of the pandemic, then rescheduled for Nov. 29. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) Israel is the only regional state that did not attend the 2021 conference.

At the conference, participants reaffirmed their commitment to producing a legally binding treaty that would establish a WMD-free zone without affecting any state’s right to research or develop nuclear, chemical, and biological materials and technologies for peaceful purposes. They agreed that a treaty should conform to the NPT and the chemical and biological weapons conventions and recognize the “catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that would result from any use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.”

States agreed that a treaty should rely predominantly on existing verification instruments, such as those exercised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but also considered the possibility of a regional mechanism to supplement the multilateral regimes.

The conference's third session will be held Nov. 14–18, 2022, in New York.

A UN conference created a committee to further talks on a Middle Eastern weapons of mass destruction-free zone.

U.S. Halts HEU Exports for Medical Purposes

January/February 2022

The United States will no longer export highly enriched uranium (HEU) to countries producing medical isotopes, marking a significant milestone in nonproliferation and nuclear security efforts.

The United States was shipping HEU periodically to certain countries that produce molybdenum-99, an isotope used in numerous medical procedures. But Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra jointly announced on Dec. 20 that there is sufficient production of molybdenum-99 without using HEU to meet U.S. needs. This certification triggered a congressionally mandated ban on U.S. exports of HEU for medical isotope production.

HEU poses a nuclear security and proliferation risk given that it can be used for nuclear weapons. Granholm described the certification as a “win-win” that makes the world safer and improves health care.

The Obama administration committed in 2012 to work with several key supplies of molybdenum-99—Belgium, France, and the Netherlands—to develop alternatives for producing the isotope using low-enriched uranium (LEU). As part of that agreement, the United States committed to supply HEU to the three states until they could complete the conversion to LEU alternatives. The commitment was made as part of the nuclear security summit process, a series of biannual summits from 2010 to 2016 that aimed to minimize the use of HEU in civilian programs to prevent nuclear terrorism.

In 2020 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license to export HEU to Belgium through December 2021. The commission noted at that time that Belgium should complete its conversion to use of LEU alternatives by mid-2022. Other major supplies of the medical isotope—the Netherlands, Australia, and South Africa—are already using LEU fuel sources for production.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

U.S. Halts HEU Exports for Medical Purposes

Russia Officially Leaves Open Skies Treaty

January/February 2022

Russia officially withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty on Dec. 18, leaving the remaining 32 states-parties to figure out how to maintain the utility of the treaty without either the United States or Russia.

The Tupolev Tu-214ON Zherdin is one of the planes Russia used to carry out the Open Skies Treaty, before it officially withdrew on Dec. 18. (Photo by Dmitry Zherdin)“Responsibility for the deterioration of the Open Skies regime lies fully with the United States as the country that started the destruction of the treaty,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a Dec. 18 statement.

The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the treaty in November 2020, and the Biden administration informed Moscow in May that it would not seek to rejoin. (See ACT, June 2021; December 2020.) Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off in June on the decision to kick-start the six-month withdrawal process. (See ACT, July/August 2021.)

After the U.S. withdrawal, Moscow sought written guarantees from the remaining states-parties that they would neither continue to share data collected under the treaty with Washington nor prohibit overflights of U.S. bases in Europe, but states-parties dismissed the request.

“Regrettably, all our efforts to preserve the treaty in its initial format have failed,” the ministry statement said. “Washington set the line towards destroying all the arms control agreements it had signed.”

Under the treaty, Russia formed a group of states-parties with Belarus. Minsk initially seemed to plan to withdraw from the treaty alongside Moscow, but now appears likely to remain a state-party.

“What is important now is for the remaining states to continue implementation, modernize the treaty (digital cameras and new sensor types), and seriously discuss additional forms of use, i.e., cross-border disaster relief or environmental monitoring,” Alexander Graef, a researcher at the Institute for Peace, Research, and Security Policy in Hamburg, tweeted on Dec. 17.

Entering into force in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.—SHANNON BUGOS

Russia Officially Leaves Open Skies Treaty


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