In 2010, world military expenditures exceeded some $1.5 trillion. The need for a culture of peace and for significant arms reduction worldwide has never been greater. And this applies to all classes of weapons.
On the danger of nuclear weapons, Albert Einstein reportedly said: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
But the human and material cost of conventional weapons is also extreme. Of at least 640 million licensed firearms worldwide, roughly two thirds are in the hands of civil society. The legal trade in small arms and weapons exceeds $4 billion a year. The illicit trade is estimated at $1 billion. And such conventional weapons as landmines take an toll on life and limb that continues for years after the conflicts that spawned them are finished. And yet, beyond the obvious effects of these weapons is their deeper cost — a cost that stems from misplaced priorities and an absence of vision.
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities."
Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1952-1960)
Since the birth of the United Nations, the goals of multilateral disarmament and arms limitation have been deemed central to the maintenance of international peace and security. These goals range from reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons, destroying chemical weapons and strengthening the prohibition against biological weapons, to halting the proliferation of landmines, small arms and light weapons.
These efforts are supported by a number of key UN instruments. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the most universal of all multilateral disarmament treaties, came into force in 1970. The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force in 1997, the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty was adopted in 1996, however it has not yet entered into force. The 1997 Mine-Ban Convention came into force in 1999.
UN-supported regional treaties ban nuclear weapons in Antarctica, Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, South-East Asia, Africa and Central Asia. Other instruments adopted through the UN ban nuclear weapons in outer space in the sea-bed.
Responding to the rise of international terrorism, the General Assembly adopted resolution 57/83 aimed at preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. In 2004, the Security Council adopted resolution 1540, banning state support for such efforts. The Assembly’s International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism was opened for signature in September 2005 and entered into force in July 2007.
The General Assembly and the Security Council address disarmament-related issues on a continuing basis. The Assembly also held special sessions on disarmament in 1978 and 1988. Some UN bodies are dedicated exclusively to disarmament. Among them is the Conference on Disarmament. As the international community’s sole multilateral negotiating forum for disarmament agreements, the Conference successfully negotiated both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) implements the decisions of the General Assembly on disarmament matters. It also provides substantive and organizational support for norm-setting in the area of disarmament through the work of the General Assembly and its First Committee, the UN Disarmament Commission, the Conference on Disarmament and other bodies. The UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) undertakes independent research on disarmament and related problems, particularly international security issues. The Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters advises the Secretary-General on matters related to arms limitation and disarmament, and serves as the Board of Trustees of UNIDIR. It also advises on implementation of the recommendations of the United Nations Disarmament Information Programme
At the local level, UN peacekeepers often work to implement specific disarmament agreements between warring parties. This approach has been used successfully in West Africa, for example, where the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General has organized regional meetings to harmonize programmes for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants. The situation in Liberia provides a good example of how this works:
Established in September 2003, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was charged with assisting in the disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and repatriation of all armed parties. The process was launched in December. Within 12 months, nearly 100,000 Liberians had turned in guns, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. On 3 November 2004, Liberia’s warring militias formally disbanded in a ceremony at UNMIL headquarters in Monrovia. By the end of February 2006, more than 300,000 internally displaced Liberians had been returned to their home villages. After 15 years of conflict, the people turned out in massive numbers for UN-assisted elections in 2005, electing Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as President.
The situation following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the conclusion of the first Gulf War is a unique example of a UN ceasefire agreement requiring enforced disarmament. When the war ended, the Council adopted its resolution 687 of 8 April 1991, setting the terms of the ceasefire. Among them: the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
To that end, the Council established the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) on the disarmament of Iraq, with powers of no-notice inspection. It entrusted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with similar verification tasks in the nuclear sphere, with UNSCOM assistance. Over the ensuing 12 years, this process succeeded in reducing Iraq’s WMD arsenal considerably.
UN Peacekeeping also employs the strategy of preventive disarmament, which seeks to reduce the number of small arms in conflict-prone regions. In El Salvador, Sierra Leone, Liberia and elsewhere, this has entailed demobilizing combat forces as well as collecting and destroying their weapons as part of an overall peace agreement.
And in keeping with the sentiment expressed by General Eisenhower, the UN is also supremely mindful, in all these efforts, of the direct relationship between disarmament and development.
“We could make significant progress towards the Millennium Development Goals
if some of these resources [spent on militaries and their armaments] were redirected to economic and social development efforts.
“At a time of soaring food and fuel prices and global economic uncertainty, the world cannot afford to ignore the development potential of disarmament and non-proliferation.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Remarks to OPANAL, 4 August 2008
As proclaimed by the General Assembly, Disarmament Week is observed worldwide from 24 to 30 October every year.