Since the birth of the United Nations, the goals of multilateral disarmament and arms limitation have been central to the Organization’s efforts to maintain international peace and security.

The UN has given highest priority to reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons, destroying chemical weapons, and strengthening the prohibition of biological weapons – all of which pose the direst threats to humankind.

While these objectives have remained constant over the years, the scope of deliberations and negotiations has changed as political realities and the international situation has evolved.

The international community continues to consider more closely the excessive and destabilizing proliferation of small arms and light weapons and has mobilized to combat the massive deployment of landmines – instruments that threaten the economic and social fabric of societies and kill and maim civilians, all too many of whom are women and children. There is also wider recognition that all types of weapons impact women, men, boys and girls differently.

The UN is also focusing on the impact of new information, telecommunications technologies and other emerging technologies on international security.

Through global efforts, several multilateral treaties and instruments have been established with the aim of regulating, restricting, or eliminating certain weapons. These include the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the Biological and Chemical Weapons Convention, the Anti-Personnel Landmine Convention, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and the Arms Trade Treaty.

Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation

Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons on earth. One can destroy a whole city, potentially killing millions, and jeopardizing the natural environment and lives of future generations through its long-term catastrophic effects. The dangers from such weapons arise from their very existence. 

Although nuclear weapons have only been used twice in warfare, about 13,080 reportedly remain in our world today and there have been over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted to date. Disarmament is the best protection against such dangers but achieving this goal has been a tremendously difficult challenge.

The UN has sought to eliminate such weapons ever since its establishment. The first resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1946 established a Commission to deal with problems related to the discovery of atomic energy among others. The Commission was to make proposals for, inter alia, the control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes.

Several multilateral treaties have since been established with the aim of preventing nuclear proliferation and testing, while promoting progress in nuclear disarmament.

These include the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests In The Atmosphere, In Outer Space And Under Water, also known as the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was signed in 1996 but has yet to enter into force, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

IAEA safeguards inspectors at work

Missiles

Missiles continue to be a focus of increased international attention, discussion, and activity. Their potential to carry and deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD) payload quickly and accurately makes missiles a qualitatively significant political and military issue. In addition, the diversity of international views on matters related to missiles poses a particular challenge for efforts to address the issue in multilateral fora.

Currently, there is no legally binding multilateral instrument dealing with the issue of missiles.

Pursuant to General Assembly resolutions, three Panels of Government Experts devoted to the issue of missiles have been established within the United Nations. Presently, several other multilateral regimes exist which seek to prevent the proliferation of missiles and related technology. These include, notably, the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Biological Weapons

The international taboo against biological weapons grew out of the horrors of the First World War. Their use has long been established as contrary to the laws of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.

Biological weapons disseminate disease-causing organisms or toxins to harm or kill humans, animals, or plants. They can be deadly and highly contagious. Diseases caused by such weapons would not confine themselves to national borders and could spread rapidly around the world.

The consequences of the deliberate release of biological agents or toxins by state or non-state actors could be dramatic. In addition to the tragic loss of lives, such events could cause food shortages, environmental catastrophes, devastating economic loss, and widespread illness, fear, and mistrust among the public.

Long-sought efforts to globally eliminate these weapons of mass destruction finally came to fruition with the conclusion in 1972 of the Biological Weapons Convention.

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. It was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Chemical Weapons

people in protective gear inspecting liquid

The modern use of chemical weapons began with World War I, when both sides to the conflict used poisonous gas to inflict agonizing suffering and to cause significant battlefield casualties.

Such weapons basically consisted of well-known commercial chemicals put into standard munitions such as grenades and artillery shells. Chlorine, phosgene (a choking agent) and mustard gas were among the chemicals used.

The results were indiscriminate and often devastating. Nearly 100,000 deaths resulted. Since World War I, chemical weapons have caused more than one million casualties globally.

Long-sought efforts to globally eliminate these weapons of mass destruction finally came to fruition with the conclusion in 1993 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The Convention aims to eliminate an entire category of weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons; to prevent their re-emergence; to ensure the elimination of existing stocks of such weapons; and, in so doing, to make the world safe from the threat of chemical warfare.

Conventional Weapons

Conventional arms are weapons other than weapons of mass destruction. They are the most commonly known and widely used weapons in conflict and crime settings and encompass a wide range of equipment, including battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft and  uncrewed combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), attack helicopters, warships, missile and missile launchers, landmines, cluster munitions, small arms, and lights weapons and ammunition.

The UN Charter does not forbid its Member States to own and use conventional arms when this is done in conformity with international law. This is the reason why the terms “arms control” and “arms limitations” are more often used than “disarmament” when referring to conventional arms.

Some conventional weapons, however, may cause humanitarian concern either because of the way they are used or may be used, or because of their design which makes them incompatible with international humanitarian law.

Early efforts to address such concerns were made already in the 19th century. A more recent example of legally binding regulations and limitations in the use of conventional weapons is the 1980 Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons.

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) is a key instrument of international humanitarian law and, with its five Protocols, seeks to ban or restrict the use of specific types of weapons (non-detectable fragments; mines, booby-traps and other devices; incendiary weapons; blinding laser weapons and explosive remnants of war) that have indiscriminate effects on civilians or cause unnecessary suffering for combatants.

men seen from above, sorting weapons and ammunition

Landmines

Every day, people die or lose limbs from stepping on a landmine (anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines). Mostly in countries at peace – and the majority of victims are civilians.

The Anti-personnel Landmine Convention, adopted in 1997, addresses this scourge. It bans the stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel landmines, requires countries to clear them on their territory, while prescribing States in a position to do so to assist affected countries.

More than 160 countries have joined this treaty. Its positive impact includes a marked reduction of casualties, an increased number of mine-free States, destroyed stockpiles and improved assistance to victims.

deminer at work

Demining

In 2017, mines, explosive remnants of conflict, and victim-operated improvised explosive devices caused over 8,600 casualties - twice as many as in 2014.  Scattered in some 57 countries and 4 territories, landmines and other explosive hazards are an ongoing reminder of conflicts which have been over for years or even decades.

The UN aims for a world free of landmines and explosive remnants of war, where individuals and communities live in a safe environment conducive to development and where the needs of victims are met. Twelve UN Departments and Offices of the Secretariat, specialized agencies, funds and programmes play a role in mine-action programs in 30 countries and three territories.

Mine action makes it possible for peacekeepers to carry out patrols, for humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance, and for ordinary citizens to live without the fear that a single misstep could cost them their lives.

Mine action entails more than removing landmines from the ground. It includes high impact efforts aimed at protecting people from danger, helping victims become self-sufficient and active members of their communities.

A jointly developed policy is Mine Action and Effective Coordination: the United Nations Inter-Agency Policy. It guides the division of labour within the United Nations. Much of the actual work, such as demining and mine risk education, is carried out by nongovernmental organizations. Commercial contractors and, in some situations, militaries, add humanitarian mine-action services to this. Furthermore, a variety of intergovernmental, international and regional organizations, as well as international financial institutions, fund operations and provide services to individuals and communities affected by landmines and explosive remnants of war.

The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) coordinates the UN's mine-related activities. UNMAS ensures an effective, proactive and coordinated response to the problems of landmines and explosive remnants of war, including cluster munitions. It assesses and monitors the threat posed by mines and unexploded ordnance on an ongoing basis and develops policies and standards. The Service mobilizes resources, and advocates in support of the global ban on anti-personnel landmines. UNMAS sets up and manages mine-action coordination centres in countries and territories as part of peacekeeping operations, humanitarian emergencies and crises. More recently, UNMAS has increasingly focused on the threat posed by improvised explosive devices.

The UN has addressed the problems posed by landmines since the 1980s. It acted decisively to address the use of weapons having indiscriminate effects when it sponsored the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. In 1996, that Convention was strengthened to include the use of landmines in internal conflicts and to require that all mines be detectable.

Eventually, a growing public outcry, combined with the committed action of non-governmental organizations involved in the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBL), led to the adoption of a comprehensive global agreement.

The landmark 1997 UN Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (Mine-Ban Convention) bans the production, use and export of these weapons and has nearly universal support.  As of November 2016, it had 164 States parties.

A UN International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action is observed every year on 4 April.

In 2015, the UN Secretary-General designated the renowned actor Daniel Craig as the first UN Global Advocate for the Elimination of Mines and Explosive Hazards.

Cluster Munitions

A cluster munition consists of a hollow shell that is dropped from the air or fired from the ground. It breaks open in mid-air and releases smaller bombs, or submunitions, that can number in the hundreds and saturate areas as wide as several football fields. This means that everyone in those areas, including civilians, run the risk of being harmed or even killed. The smaller explosive submunitions also sometimes fail to detonate immediately, leaving them capable of killing or maiming at random even long after a conflict has ended.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits under any circumstances the use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions, as well as the assistance or encouragement of anyone to engage in prohibited activities. The Convention provides a comprehensive international response to the suffering caused by the use of cluster munitions and their remnants, to prevent the proliferation and future use of these weapons. 

Ammunition

Stockpiled ammunition can become unsafe if not properly stored. Unintended explosions of ammunition depots have affected over 100 countries worldwide, leading to thousands of casualties over the past 15 years.

Moreover, when depots are not well managed, they form an unremitting source for diversion of ammunition to armed groups and criminals, thus sustaining conflict and armed criminal activity.

Through the UN Safeguard Programme, the UN works on improving whole-life management of ammunition, thus providing people more safety and more security.

peacekeeper examines magazines from automatic weapons

Arms Trade

The ready availability of weapons and ammunition leads to human suffering, political repression, crime, and terror among civilian populations. Illicit arms transfers can destabilize an entire region, enable violations of arms embargoes, and contribute to human rights abuses in countries experiencing conflict and high levels of violence. States affected by conflict or pervasive crime have the most difficulty attaining the Sustainable Development Goals.

The adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in April 2013 by the General Assembly of the United Nations marked a turning point in the international community’s efforts to regulate the global trade in conventional arms and promote peace and security.

Before the adoption of the ATT, there was no global set of legal rules governing the trade in conventional weapons. The Treaty sets robust international standards to help guide governments in deciding whether or not to authorize arms transfers. It provides for cooperation and assistance to help countries develop adequate regulatory systems and safe weapons stockpiles.

Gender and disarmament

People are differently involved in and impacted by weapons, armed conflict and issues related to weapons and security based on their gender and other factors. Disarmament and arms control processes and policies are more effective when the realities faced by women, men girls and boys are taken into consideration.

Multiple international frameworks and UN resolutions recognize the gender dimensions of disarmament and arms control. For example, according to the Arms Trade Treaty, States Parties are legally required to assess how export of conventional weapons and ammunition can be used to commit gender-based violence, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons acknowledges the disproportionate impact of nuclear radiation on women and girls.

In 2000, the Security Council adopted the first of ten resolutions on women, peace and security (WPS) acknowledging the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls and calling for women’s full involvement in all peace and security efforts. The General Assembly in its resolution 65/69 (2010) and six subsequent resolutions on Women, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control also encourages better understanding of the gendered impact of armed conflict and recognizes the need to facilitate equal opportunities and increase the participation of women in disarmament decision-making.

Nevertheless, women remain underrepresented and make up only approximately one third of participants in multilateral disarmament meetings and even fewer are heads of delegations. 

woman with child picking up potable water

Disarmament and Youth

United Nations Secretary-General Guterres articulates in his Agenda for Disarmament, Securing Our Common Future, how young people have been a tremendous force for change in the world, noting how they have “proved their power time and again in support of the cause of disarmament. Young activists have worked at the forefront of successful international campaigns to ban landmines, cluster munitions and nuclear weapons.” The important and positive contribution that young people can make in sustaining peace and security was reaffirmed by the UN General Assembly through its unanimous support for a new resolution entitled, Youth, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control, adopted on 12 December 2019.

Recognizing the importance of young people to bring about change, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) launched its youth outreach initiative, “#Youth4Disarmament” in 2019 to engage, educate and empower young people with the aim of facilitating their meaningful and inclusive participation in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation. Through the combination of educational, creative and innovative practices, the #Youth4Disarmament initiative invites youth of all backgrounds, interests and expertise to meaningfully participate in Securing our Common Future - one safer, more sustainable and peaceful for all and future generations.

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