AK-47's and SPLA uniforms are burned


Since its founding, the United Nations has sought the global elimination of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons pose a unique and existential threat to humanity due to their unparalleled destructive power. One nuclear weapon can destroy a whole city, potentially killing millions, and jeopardizing the natural environment and lives of future generations through its long-term catastrophic effects. Although nuclear weapons have only been used twice in warfare—in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—about 13,400 reportedly remain in our world today and there have been over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted to date. Pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons is the best protection against such dangers but achieving this goal has been a tremendously difficult challenge.

The international taboo against biological and chemical 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. 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 and in 1993 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Conventional arms continue to be at the centre of the world’s conflicts, and it is civilians who continue to bear the brunt of such armed violence. The widespread availability of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition is a key enabler of armed violence and conflict. High levels of arms and ammunition in circulation contribute to insecurity, facilitate human rights violations and impede humanitarian access. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development importantly acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between peace and sustainable development. Sustainable Development Goal 16, in particular, recognizes that a significant reduction in illicit arms flows is necessary for peaceful, just and inclusive societies. Beyond Goal 16, combatting the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons is necessary for the achievement of many goals, including those relating to poverty reduction, economic growth, health, gender equality, and safe cities and communities.

Driven by humanitarian and human rights considerations, a number of multilateral treaties and instruments have been established with the aim of regulating, restricting or eliminating certain conventional weapons and regulating the international arms trade. These include the Anti-Personnel Landmine Convention, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The Arms Trade Treaty regulates the international transfer of conventional weapons by setting common international standards, while the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons contains a range of commitments at the national, regional and global levels to combat this scourge. International efforts are also ongoing to address the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

As advances in science and technology continue to revolutionize human life, many developments, however, are also enabling, at an accelerating pace, the design and acquisition of new weapon technologies with unclear or potentially dangerous applications. From a peace and security perspective, there are concerns about the ability of new weapons to destabilize security relations, for example hypersonic weapons. In the face of the growing autonomy in weaponry, new measures are necessary to ensure humans always maintain control over the use of force. States must also seek measures to prevent an arms race in outer space and foster a culture of accountability and adherence to norms, rules and principles for responsible behaviour in cyberspace.

Various bodies of the United Nations, including the General Assembly and Security Council, work to advance international peace and security through the pursuit of the elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the regulation of conventional arms, and ensuring responsible innovation and use of advances in science and technology. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), first established in 1983, supports these bodies, the Secretary-General, Member States and civil society groups in pursuing these goals. The Office promotes:

  • Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation;
  • Strengthening of the disarmament regimes in respect to other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons;
  • Disarmament and arms control efforts in the area of conventional weapons, such as landmines, cluster munitions, the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as well as through increasing transparency via the UN Register of Conventional Arms;
  • Ensuring responsible innovation and use of advances in science and technology and addressing emerging weapon technologies such as autonomous weapon systems.