Could the use of rockets be banned in the Middle East?

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

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Conflict Background


By René Wadlow

The use of rockets by Islamic groups from Gaza toward Israel and the more deadly use of rockets and bombs by Israeli forces toward Gaza have dramatically raised the possibility of banning rocket use in the Middle East.

Arms control in this region has always been difficult, as the Middle East has no equivalent of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As a universal organization, the United Nations has difficulty dealing with regional security matters. There are UN regional bodies to deal with economic and social issues, but not security-related ones.

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).

The Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group (ACRS) was created during the 1992-1995 period, evolving from the Madrid “peace process” with 14 States. In the words of 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 the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The ACRS confidence-building and transparency measures were so modest that it went unnoticed when they ended in 1996.

Arms control can succeed when it is 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 leading 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 promote 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, and cluster bombs, as well as the small-arms trade. In nearly all of these situations, non-governmental organizations played an important role in raising the issue and then building momentum once a few governments took interest and provided leadership within government meetings.

Thus, the Association of World Citizens proposed in an 18 July 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 by States and non-State actors (such as Hamas) 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 to initiate a nuclear attack under any circumstance. This commitment has become an accepted international norm, though few nuclear-weapon States have made such a pledge.  The norm is reiterated 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 1925 Geneva Protocol, aka the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. The Protocol bans the use (but not the possession) of the poison gas so widely used during the 1914-1918 World War. The idea of inspection and total destruction of stocks of chemical weapons came much later. It was Syria’s signature on the 1925 Geneva Protocol that led to the country’s recent agreement to honor the no-use provisions and ultimately to destroy existing stocks under the provisions of the more recent Chemical Weapons Treaty, which Syria also signed. However, it was the 1925 Geneva Protocol, as incomplete as it is, that “opened the door” to effective action.

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

René Wadlow is president and a U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

This article was originally published on and is available by clicking here.

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