On 13-14 February 2019, there is planned The Ministerial Conference to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East. The conference was called jointly by the governments of the U.S.A. and Poland, but it is likely that the U.S.A. is the “senior partner”. The goal of the conference as set out in the invitation is “to take the policy priorities that emerge from the ministerial meeting and to operationalize those policies by having follow-on meetings in various parts of the world.”
When the conference was first presented, there was a strong anti-Iran coloring in the U.S. presentation, and not all “players” of the Middle East drama are invited to Warsaw. Iran and Russia as governments were not invited. Non-State actors such as the Palestinians, the Kurds, the Islamic State and a host of armed militias – all of whom play a current role – will be officially absent.
Nevertheless, the Ministerial Conference has some of the same elements which led to the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. The Helsinki process developed through a series of meetings among governments, but also with Track II – non-official meetings among non-governmental representatives, academics, former government officials and media to see where progress might be made.
Non-governmental organizations had been promoting such a security and cooperation conference since the late 1960s. The Cold War was at a stage when things could become more tense but also where there seemed to be new possibilities for compromise and even cooperation. “Peaceful co-existence” as a term was starting to be used.
Although there have been conferences and negotiations on the Middle East before which have never led to “peace and security”, we might be at a turning point. Thus 13-14 February might be the start of what we can call “The Warsaw Process” leading to a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East, largely inspired by the Helsinki Process.
The Association of World Citizens has for a good number of years proposed a Conference for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East with full recognition of all States in the region and taking steps toward a Middle East Common Market, cooperation on water issues and the creation of a trans-frontier special economic zone for the Gaza strip. Such a Middle East Conference is based on the Helsinki Conference of 1973 -1975.
When the first phase of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe concluded in Helsinki in July 1973, some saw that seeds to end the Cold War had been planted, but that these seeds would have to be watered and carefully protected. The Helsinki Final Act was still unwritten and even the issues to be discussed had not yet been set out beyond a rather general and vague sentiment that military security and military confidence-building steps were important.
The negotiators moved to Geneva, Switzerland and discussed from 18 September until the eve of the Summit to be again held in Helsinki on 1 August 1975. As midnight of the deadline for agreeing on the text of the Helsinki Final Act was approaching, the clock in the meeting room was stopped so that the text could be finalized in the agreed time.
There were diplomats from three groups of States: the Western States, the Soviet Union and its allies, the four neutral States and Yugoslavia as “non-aligned”. The contribution of the neutral States and of non-governmental organizations is what is lacking in the Middle East case.
The four neutrals: Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria were all “Western” by their value system and had multi-party forms of government, but they were not part of one of the two military alliances. Moreover, all four neutral States had a well-trained diplomatic corps which had participated in difficult negotiations before. They played a mediating role but also championed their own causes. Thus Switzerland pushed the concept of a OSCE Court that could deal with the judicial settlement of disputes. The Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, though little used, is now located in Geneva.
Geneva also had a good number of representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who had consultative status with the United Nations and were concerned with arms control, human rights, conflict resolution and international trade agreements. While there was no formal structure for NGO contributions to the Helsinki Process, there was access to diplomats of the countries involved at the United Nations. Two teaching colleagues of mine at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Jean Siotis and Victor-Yves Ghebali have written good accounts of the Geneva negotiations drawn largely from interviews and the vast number of working papers that were exchanged.(1)
Some seeds for a Middle East version of the Helsinki process were planted but have not yet sprouted. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act ha a chapter entitled “Questions relating to security and cooperation in the Mediterranean.” The link between security in Europe and the Mediterranean has been formalized starting in 1994 with the Mediterranean Partners for Co-operation: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel. It is theoretically possible for leadership from these six States to propose an enlargement. Libya and Lebanon can also be considered “Mediterranean”. One could also start with a totally new process – inspired by the example of the Helsinki process but with no organic link.
The neutrals and Yugoslavia, in different ways, played important roles in the Helsinki process. There may be hidden visionaries in the Middle East who could give a start to such a process. Alas, for the moment their voices are mute and the situations grow more tense by the day.
1) See Victor-Yves Ghebali. La diplomatie de la détente. La CSCE d’Helsinki à Vienne (1973-1989) (Bruxelles; Bruylant Editors, 1989)