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Have we entered a new era of diplomacy?

Relative progress in Iran and Syria, due to a newfound political will, proves that to ‘jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’ as Sir Winston Churchill once said- writes Kate Hudson

After more than a decade where the threat of military intervention has seemed the first port of call in a crisis, dialogue seems to have broken out in a number of seemingly intractable situations. After the British Parliament declined to attack Syria at the end of August, politicians fell over themselves to explain how rigorously they were now going to pursue the diplomatic option.

But what seemed at the time to be a face-saving faux enthusiasm may now become support for a genuine first port of call: because diplomacy has been proven to deliver. Just two weeks after the Westminster vote which derailed a United States attack, the US and Russia were signing an agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. It took just three days of talks in Geneva, between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, to arrive at that agreement.

Contrary to the expectations of many, Damascus then submitted its inventory on time and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons entered Syria on October 1. By mid-October Syria had joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and by the end of the month the OPCW confirmed that Syria’s declared equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons had been destroyed. Now the process of destroying the weapons themselves is underway, due to be completed in the first half of 2014.

This extraordinary achievement – which few would have believed possible – shows what can happen when the political will exists. And recent developments around Iran’s hotly debated nuclear programme suggest that Syria may not be an isolated case. September also saw newly elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaking with American president Barack Obama – the first time leaders of those countries had spoken since 1979. They agreed to speed up talks aimed at ending the nuclear crisis. Next week, Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, may be visiting Tehran for talks, while broader negotiations have resumed in Geneva.

Equally significant and even less expected, are the reports that Israel participated in talks in Switzerland last month with other states from the region – including Iran – about convening a conference on making the Middle East a weapons of mass destruction-free zone. For decades there have been resolutions from the United Nations calling for such a zone to be established, primarily amid concerns about Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Recent attempts to get the initiative off the starting blocks, led by Finland on behalf of the UN, foundered in the face of Israeli refusal to participate in a regional conference to discuss a WMD-free zone. So the news of the meeting, described by an Israeli official in Jerusalem as a ‘preparatory session, of sorts’ for the planned Middle East conference, is a significant breakthrough. It is hard to see how it would have come about without the recent diplomatic advances – serious engagement with Iran, and Syria’s sign-up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and all that implies.

So international dialogue and diplomacy are bearing fruit. But what these developments also show is the crucial importance – frequently talked down – of UN treaty frameworks and their legal, monitoring and policing structures. These are provided to facilitate and enable the many small and detailed steps that are necessary to resolve complex problems if we are not just opting to drop a bomb instead. Without the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW, bringing Syria to the disarmament table in a matter of days would have been impossible.

This will doubtless be recognised by those states – the overwhelming majority – who would like to see an international treaty or convention put in place to ban nuclear weapons. Recent discussions at the UN first committee on peace and disarmament have shown a ground swell of support for international initiatives to that end, yet Britain has stood aside from recent state level discussions about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use.

We are seeing a global backlash by the non-nuclear weapons states against the very small number of countries – Britain included – that persist in holding onto nuclear weapons in spite of the international opprobrium in which they are held. Britain needs to be in touch with these new debates and participate in them. After all, if Israel and Iran can discuss a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, why can’t Britain join in international discussions about achieving a global ban?

Britain’s parties of government all subscribe to the idea of multilateral disarmament yet do precious little about it. The global abolition of nuclear weapons is now firmly on the international agenda and Britain should not box itself into a corner by refusing to engage in the new discussions that are taking place. Successive governments have argued that retaining Trident will give us greater leverage in disarmament negotiations but have done nothing to make those negotiations a reality. Now others are taking the initiative instead. If it is not to be marginalised in these processes, and left without a voice, Britain needs to be a willing and constructive participant.

Kate Hudson is general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

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