Finland designated to host international conference in 2012 on nuclear weapons-free Middle East
Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava appointed as "facilitator"
Finland is to host a large and by all accounts rather sensitive international conference next year, with a view to launching talks on turning the Middle East into a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.
Finland was apparently competing for the task of arranging the event with The Netherlands, but in New York on Friday the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and representatives from the United States, Russia, and Britain announced that the gathering would be hosted by the Finnish government, and that the role of "facilitator" for the conference would go to Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Jaakko Laajava, a former Ambassador of Finland to the United States (1996-2001) and the United Kingdom (2005-2010).
"In the background to this announcement are several months of discussions that Russia, Great Britain, and the United States have had together and jointly with the Secretary-General and countries in the region. I have the impression that the decision to invite Finland to host the gathering began to take shape roughly a week ago. The Secretary-General has examined the matter himself and has been in touch with the various parties concerned, and on that basis he has come up with Finland", said Laajava on Friday.
He believes that the choice was influenced by a little bit of canny diplomacy, by Finland's strong track-record as a mediator and peacebroker, and by the country's consistent support for the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty (NPT).
The principle of moving towards a Middle East region free of nuclear and other weapons received formal backing at a May 2010 Review Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which reflected a desire to implement the 1995 NPT resolution on the Middle East. The United States, Russia and Britain were the main sponsors of the earlier initiative.
A conference such as this emerged in the talks last year as one condition for the new unanimous international declaration on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The impasse in peace moves between Israel and the Palestinians and the turmoil in the Arab world following the so-called "Arab Spring" have since added to the expectations heaped on a gathering of this nature.
The timetable for the conference and all other details of arranging the event remain open. The time-frame is broadly 2012, says Laajava.
The intention is that the conference will be attended by all the Arab states, and by the regional arch-enemies Iran and Israel, although neither country made any immediate comment on their attendance.
Israel is not a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran is a member of the NPT, but Western nations have accused the country of seeking nuclear weapons, a charge that Tehran has repeatedly denied.
Also expected around the table or in the chamber will be representatives of the major superpowers.
Laajava notes that the list of participants will firm up as a result of discussions he will have with the countries concerned, in his role as facilitator.
According to Minister for Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja (SDP), the choice of Finland to shoulder this challenging task is a significant feather in the Finnish cap.
“The establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is an important goal, which, if realised, would constitute a major step in advancing peace and stability in the region. The conference to be organised in Finland will for its part be a means of promoting dialogue among the countries in the region on security issues. We are committed to organising the conference and will work in close cooperation with countries in the region to that end”, Tuomioja said.
President Tarja Halonen, who is herself currently in New York, attending the 100th anniversary celebrations of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, also issued a statement in the UN on Friday, noting that the choice of Finland as host was a great honour.
”I would like to extend my fullest support to Mr. Laajava in this task. I am grateful that Finland enjoys the trust of the Secretary General, the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, as well as other Member States. A zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East would be a major contribution to disarmament and non-proliferation as well as to regional and global security. It is now our joint responsibility to succeed", declared Halonen.
Nevertheless, in realistic terms, the real achievement in the short run will be the gathering itself, if it manages to bring together all the parties in the region.
Nobody anticipates that Helsinki (assuming the conference is held in the capital) would immediately see great leaps made towards an agreement banning nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons from the Middle East.
”Naturally one must take a positive and confident attitude that a common understanding can be reached. Everyone is aware that these are not easy issues, as is perfectly obvious from the Middle East peace process itself. Just taking small steps forwards sometimes requires a great deal of pain and effort, but even modest progress is important", comments Laajava.
2010 NPT Review Conference (Wikipedia)
Jaakko Laajava (Under-Secretary of State: Foreign and Security Policy)
United Nations news release, 14.10.2011
Joint Statement by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Governments of the U.S., U.K., and Russian Federation, 14.10.2011
President of the Republic of Finland Tarja Halonen: On the 2012 Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and All Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, 14.10.2011
Ministry for Foreign Affairs: Finland to host conference on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East