At the opening session of the EastWest Institute's 9th Annual Worldwide Security Conference at the World Customs Organization in Brussels on November 12, Finland’s former President and Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari appealed for the creation of new regional organizations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia to curb conflicts. “The catastrophe of Syria demonstrates this need,” he declared. “The nations of Southwest Asia need to work to build a security organization that bridges major divides.”
Ahtisaari, who is also a member of the board of directors of the EastWest Institute, addressed approximately 300 high-level policy makers, business executives and public opinion leaders, citing the critical urgency of their work. The conference is focused on "Reshaping Economic Security in Southwest Asia and the Middle East." While encouraging participants to make specific recommendations on cross-border infrastructure, the water-energy food nexus, youth unemployment and social marginalization, Ahtisaari emphasized the need for effective peace-making.
The former Finnish President conceded the difficulties of forming a regional organization. “We know that the issue of Palestine and other big issues, such as Iran’s nuclear program, have prevented even the idea of such an organization,” he said. ”But history shows – as the UN Charter foreshadowed – that regional organizations are a powerful tool in successful conflict resolution and peace building.”
For now, Ahtisaari added, “the moral imperative” of the Syrian conflict demands more urgent measures. “Perhaps one can recommend a holding action: find a way to get humanitarian access, and to stop the fighting unconditionally, but premised on a commitment to new and fair elections, organized for example by the UN and supported by a substantive UN peacekeeping operation.” But he conceded that the immediate chances for any such solution look slight.
The conference was held against the backdrop of the looming 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan as well as the continuing turmoil in the Middle East. Topics for the sessions included: Economic Security and Regional Cooperation; New Directions for Water-Energy-Food Security Policies; Afghanistan and its Neighbors; and the role of private sector investment in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin emphasized the importance of his country’s integration into the region. “Come 2014, Afghanistan will hopefully achieve stability, but terrorism won’t go away,” he said. Pointing to significant new investments by China, India, Turkey and others, he urged more such regional cooperation. “It’s time for the region to bet on our success rather than to bet on our misfortunes,” he added. While Afghanistan’s ties to more distant allies remains important, “we know that our future lies within the region,” he concluded.
As a result of the Arab Spring, the Middle East faces major new challenges, speakers pointed out. “Unfortunately, in the Arab world we have not prevented political troubles from harming economic interests,” said Ambassador Hesham Youssef, the Assistant Secretary General of the League of Arab States. During 2011, foreign investment declined by 38 percent, he pointed out.
Potential conflicts over scarce resources, particularly water, are another major concern. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the Arab world has 0.7 percent of the world’s water, Youssef added. “This is why many experts have been predicting that the next war in the Middle East will be about water.”
Nonetheless, Youssef also saw hope in the transition to more democratic governments, which are more likely to work together to focus on their common challenges than previous regimes. “Governments will succeed if they move fast and meet the expectations of their people,” he said.
Ahtisaari sounded a similar cautious note about the scope of the challenges. “The broad area of Southwest Asia and the Middle East has too often been host to regional tension and conflict, and a battle ground for competing outside interests,” he said. “In the 21st century, this vast area has become the core of global politics. I am convinced that it is a region whose further development and direction will determine what kind of 21st century we all will be facing. It is also a region where the very credibility of the international community is at stake.”
In his report from the conference, EWI board member Ikram Sehgal, who chaired one of the panels, discusses the impact of the looming 2014 withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. He writes that this event “is bound to have a profound impact in the region and present significant challenges.” You can read Sehgal’s full report here.