Could the Use of Rockets be Banned in the Middle East?

The use of rockets from Gaza toward Israel and the more deadly use of rockets and bombs by Israeli forces toward Gaza has raised in a dramatic way the possibility of banning rocket use in the Middle East.

Arms control in the Middle East has always been difficult as there is no equivalent of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the region. The United Nations as a universal organization has difficulty dealing with security matters on a regional basis. There are UN regional bodies to deal with economic and social issues but not for security matters. Thus, discussions and negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program is an ad hoc grouping. Likewise, negotiations on a Middle East Nuclear-weapon Free Zone often proposed by UN General Assembly resolutions as well as agreed upon during the 5-year reviews of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has never advanced, though Finland had proposed to host a governmental conference on the issue.

There had been in the 1992-1995 period the creation of the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group (ACRS) which grew from the Madrid “peace process” with 14 States. In the words of the then US Secretary of State, James Baker, the agenda of the Working Group was to consider “a set of modest confidence-building or transparency measures covering notification of selected military-related activities and crisis-prevention communications. The purpose would be to lessen the prospects for incidents and miscalculations that could lead to heightened competition or even conflict.” The approach followed the pattern of NATO-Warsaw Pact discussions as part of what was then still the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The ACRS confidence-building and transparency measures were so modest as to have been unseen when they ended in 1996.

Arms control can succeed when they are part of a larger process that addresses the human, social and psychological elements that undermine security. The NATO-Warsaw Pact confidence-building measures took place as the first “winds of change” were blowing in Eastern Europe and there were subtle signs of change in the Soviet Union leading to the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

Unfortunately, confidence and security-building measures that would lead to missile control do not seem to be high on the current agendas of Middle East governments. With violence exploding, hopes for positive steps toward an Israeli-Palestinian accord in the near future seem dim. Some believe that regional arms control can only come after a comprehensive peace has been established in the region, to be followed by a state of peace among peoples beyond the terms of a formal peace agreement. Only then can there be an arms control process linked to confidence-building measures. In this approach, arms are seen as a result of political tensions, not the cause of political instability.

Thus, some feel that pressures to force premature disarmament in the absence of reliable alternative security structures will be seen as efforts to gain unilateral advantage rather than form part of a broader approach towards co-operative security and stability.

No one will argue that the general political “climate” is not important to arms control efforts. However, a “one-weapon at a time approach” has had some success at the world level concerning chemical weapons, land mines, cluster bombs, as well as the small-arms trade. In nearly all the “one-weapon at a time approach” non-governmental organizations played an important role in raising the issue at the start and then building momentum once a few governments took an interest and provided leadership within government meetings.

Thus, the Association of World Citizens proposed in a July 18, 2014 message to the Secretary General of the United Nations and the Secretary General of the League of Arab States that serious consideration be given to a pledge to refuse to use rockets and missiles at any time.

The Association of World Citizens’ proposal is based on the “no first use” pledges concerning the use of nuclear weapons − a commitment never under any circumstance to initiate a nuclear attack. This commitment has become an accepted international norm though few nuclear-weapon States have made such a pledge. The norm is re-stated in UN General Assembly Resolution 36/100n which states in its Preamble “Any doctrine allowing the first use of nuclear weapons and any actions pushing the world toward a catastrophe are incompatible with human moral standards and the lofty ideals of the UN.”

The Association of World Citizens’ proposal follows the pattern of the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, often called the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The Protocol bans the use, not the possession of, poison gas so widely used during the 1914-1918 World War. The idea of inspection and the total destruction of stocks of chemical weapons came much later. It was the signature by Syria of the 1925 Geneva Protocol that led to the recent agreement by Syria to honor the no-use provisions and ultimately to have destroyed existing stocks under the provisions of the more recent Chemical Weapons Treaty which Syria signed as part of the recent agreement. However, it was the 1925 Geneva Protocol, as incomplete as it is, which “opened the door” to effective action.

Thus, efforts to eliminate stocks of rockets and missiles seem unlikely of success in the current context. However, a ban on use might be a real possibility and merits speedy consultations.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.