U.N. disarmament talks flop over nuke-free zone plan for Middle East

NEW YORK, May 23 (PNA/Kyodo) — A four-week UN review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ended Friday without adopting a consensus document, with negotiators failing to narrow differences over a proposal to make the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone.

The failure to produce an outline for actions for the next five years at the meeting, which took place in the 70th anniversary year of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will likely raise concerns that efforts to advance disarmament toward a world free of nuclear arms will lose momentum.

The conference president, Taous Feroukhi, admitted a lack of consensus at a plenary meeting that was held after hours of delay. Citing “diverging expectations of state parties for a progressive outcome,” the Algerian ambassador said “it would be impossible for any single consensual document to possibly meet the highest aspirations of all parties.”

With the current meeting — held once every five years — not the first to close without adopting a final document, the conference’s effectiveness in promoting its agenda of disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy may be thrown into question.

At the plenary meeting, the proposal for a Middle East zone, which would involve Israel — an undeclared but acknowledged nuclear power — was raised by a number of speakers.

Rose Gotemoeller, the U.S. undersecretary for arms control and security policy, rejected a plan to hold a conference on establishing such a zone by March 1 next year contained in the final draft for an outcome document, with the idea having been put forward by the Russians.

The U.S. official called it “an arbitrary deadline” and blasted Egypt and a number of other states, saying they were not willing to let go of this and other “unrealistic and unworkable conditions” in the text.

Britain and Canada also criticized the conference deadline language in the final text.

Egyptian Ambassador Hisham Badr slammed the United States, saying it “blocked” an agreement on the nuclear-free zone. It is “a sad day” for the NPT, he said, pointing out how three countries, had blocked the agreement.

“By blocking consensus we are depriving the world, but especially the Middle East, of even one chance of a better future, away from the horrors and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons,” he added.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian head of delegation, said it was a “shame that such an opportunity for dialogue had turned out to be missed, perhaps for a long time to come.”

In the closing days of the conference, some observers said nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” in the NPT framework were narrowing some differences over nuclear disarmament in working out a final document. But consensus was blocked over the issue of Israel, which is not party to the treaty but attended the review meeting as an observer for the first time in 20 years.

Along with many other participants at the plenary meeting, Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama expressed disappointment about the lack of a final document, saying it is “extremely regrettable that this conference was not able to adopt a consensus, a substantive document, though we seemed to have come quite near to do so.”

Japan attempted to include an invitation for world leaders to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the consensus document but it was dropped in the face of opposition from China, which believed Tokyo was trying to portray itself as a war victim.

Despite the failure to come up with an agreed document Sugiyama stressed that it did not change his country’s commitment to the credibility of the NPT regime. “It is not all lost,” he said, adding that Japan would be hosting a series of meetings on disarmament issues in August in Hiroshima.

The review conference has also highlighted the importance and increasing recognition by a majority of states parties to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear bombs.

“I think the support for the humanitarian approach, that will not get smaller,” Austria’s head of delegation Alexander Kmentt told reporters after the meeting ending. “The nuclear weapons states were at least forced to recognize that on those issues they cannot force their hand because the vast majority of countries have a clear message to tell.”

Meanwhile, Beatrice Fihn, the Executive Director of ICAN, a nongovernmental organization, pointed out how the removal of references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki visits was regrettable.

“The 70th anniversary is very important to highlight the suffering that happens if a nuclear bomb detonates and it is not a power politics issue or an attempt to rewrite history, we just want to make sure that the world knows what a nuclear bomb does when used,” she noted.

Frustration has been growing among non-nuclear states who have been calling for a framework for banning nuclear weapons, an idea shunned by nuclear powers. Now that no consensus has been attained, it may spur calls for a treaty to outlaw destructive weapons.

NPT review conferences have been held since 1975. The 2005 meeting also failed to produce a substantive consensus document. The treaty counts roughly 190 signatories. (PNA/Kyodo)