The United Nations and Disarmament Treaties

Established upon the ashes of the Second World War to represent “We the Peoples”, it is not surprising that both peace and security were fundamental objectives for the United Nations. While many also wanted disarmament, countervailing lessons were drawn by some political leaders, which made it difficult to get multilateral agreements on disarmament for several decades. Debates around nuclear weapons epitomized and sharpened the challenges. Academics in the United States of America led in developing theories of deterrence to provide legitimacy for these weapons of mass destruction, which soon became embedded in the military doctrines and political rhetoric of further Governments, from NATO allies to the Eastern bloc and beyond. Deterrence theory sought to invert the normative relationship between peace and disarmament by arguing that nuclear weapons were actually peacekeepers amassed to deter aggressors rather than to fight them. From there it became a short step for some countries—including permanent Members of the Security Council of the United Nations—to promote ideologies that equated security and peace with high “defence” budgets and military-industrial dependence on arms manufacture and trade. This is the backdrop for understanding how the United Nations System and disarmament approaches have intersected since 1945, and the way in which reframing disarmament as a universal humanitarian imperative has opened more productive opportunities for future multilateral disarmament treaties.

The very first resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, in January 1946, addressed the “problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy”. Despite civil society’s efforts, led by scientists and women’s peace organizations, leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union rejected measures to curb nuclear ambitions. As the cold war took hold, the leaders that had emerged “victorious” in 1945 raced each other to manufacture and deploy all kinds of new weapons and war technologies, especially nuclear, chemical and biological weapons (notwithstanding the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in war) and a variety of missiles to deliver them speedily anywhere in the world.

After early efforts to control nuclear developments floundered, it was the upsurge of health and environmental concerns provoked by nuclear testing that led the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Japanese Parliament to call for such explosions to be halted altogether. After an egregiously irresponsible 15 megaton thermonuclear bomb was tested in the Marshall Islands on 1 March 1954, Nehru submitted his proposal for a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the United Nations Disarmament Commission on 29 July 1954. Since then CTBT has been the centrepiece of disarmament demands from many States, especially the developing countries of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Intended as a first step towards disarmament, the driving force behind CTBT was concern about the humanitarian impacts. Early attempts at multilateral negotiations through a newly created Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament made little progress. Although the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom professed their desire for a CTBT, their talks kept stalling. Obstacles from the nuclear laboratories and security advisors were dressed up as verification problems, but they stemmed from these nuclear-armed Governments’ military ambitions and rivalries, and their shared determination to keep their own weapons options open, even as they sought to limit those of others.

From 1959 to 1961, various resolutions were adopted by the General Assembly aimed at preventing the testing, acquisition, use, deployment and proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 1961, for example, General Assembly resolution 1664 (XVI) recognized that “the countries not possessing nuclear weapons have a grave interest, and an important part to fulfil” in halting nuclear tests and achieving nuclear disarmament. General Assembly resolution 1653 (XVI) went further, noting that the targets of nuclear weapons would not just be “enemies” but “peoples of the world not involved in…war”, with devastation that would “exceed even the scope of war and cause indiscriminate suffering and destruction to mankind…contrary to the rules of international law and to the laws of humanity”. And finally, General Assembly resolution 1665 (XVI), unanimously adopted, called on nuclear and non-nuclear weapons possessors to “cooperate” to prevent further acquisition and spread of nuclear weapons. These early resolutions fed into “non-proliferation” talks between the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, viewed as first steps towards disarmament. However, it took the shock of the Cuban Missile Crisis to achieve concrete progress. Deciding not to ban weapons tests conducted underground, American, Soviet and British leaders finally concluded a Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963. This prohibited nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, underwater and outer space, and paved the way for the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Notwithstanding humanitarian aspirations in the preambles, the limited nature of the prohibitions they contained demonstrated the military interests of the dominant cold war nuclear-armed Governments rather than the objectives of civilians and the majority of non-nuclear States.

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) was heralded as multilateral, but was largely determined by United States and Soviet interests. Unlike NPT, which, unusually, had designated two classes of treaty parties determined by whether they already possessed nuclear weapons or not, BTWC at least enshrined the same basic prohibitions and obligations on all States parties, including undertakings not to “develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain” such weapons, to “take any necessary measures to prohibit and prevent the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition or retention of the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery” and to destroy existing stocks. Characterizing their military use as “repugnant to the conscience of mankind”, the objective of BTWC was to “exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons”. It was adopted without verification provisions. Having recognized that it was in their own interests to ban bioweapons because of their indiscriminate and uncontrollable global consequences, the super-Powers chose not to allow lengthy multilateral negotiations on verification to delay the adoption of the treaty, which they believed they could monitor through other means. Their security priority was to achieve international legal prohibitions and embed a bioweapons taboo in norms and practice, before it was too late.

Where mutually convenient, the United States and the Soviet Union produced a few bilateral arms limitation agreements which cemented their own strategic relationship but contributed little to disarmament, as both continued to modernize and add to their nuclear arsenals. With the exception of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) treaty dealing with specific types of conventional weapons deemed to be “excessively injurious” and “indiscriminate”, little progress was possible on multilateral disarmament until the cold war ended. The United Nations First Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD I) in 1978 identified key objectives and established the Conference on Disarmament (CD), but had little impact on the military and diplomatic actions of major States. Though billed as multilateral, CD membership was awarded to fewer than 40 States (rising to 60 a few months before CTBT was concluded). Non-members could observe, but in a consensus-based institution, they lacked full participation and rights.

Multilateral disarmament pressure came to the fore in the 1980s. Although the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was negotiated between United States and Soviet diplomats, it was driven and underpinned by inspirational and internationally diverse civil society actions for peace and democracy, including direct pressure on nuclear bases. While it is necessary to oversimplify the causes and consequences in such a short article, the movements that made the INF Treaty possible also paved the way for the ending of the cold war. This in turn gave a new lease of life to CD, enabling it to finalize negotiations on two long-standing disarmament objectives: the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the CTBT. Environmental and humanitarian considerations, as well as security, were driving forces in getting both treaties ratified, and this was reflected in their preambles. Contending demands of eight nuclear-capable States, however, led to an untenably rigid entry into force provision for CTBT that has prevented it from coming into full legal force in the 18 years since its adoption, despite 183 signatures and 162 ratifications—far more than most treaties that are already in force. Hobbled by a rigid consensus rule, endgame conflicts resulted in CD being unable to adopt the finalized treaty. Some States then took the text of CTBT to the General Assembly, where it was overwhelmingly adopted in September 1996, with only three States voting against.

Although this “leapfrog” tactic was controversial at the time, it is now normal for States that have negotiated multilateral treaties to take them to the General Assembly to be adopted and endorsed by the United Nations. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has become the preferred depositary for modern treaties. By contrast, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union were designated depositary States for NPT, reflecting their interests and status as nuclear-armed States.

The last 20 years have seen mixed results for disarmament negotiations at the United Nations. Nationalist tactics and vetoes from a handful of States with high levels of dependency on weapons production and trade have stymied multilateral attempts to strengthen existing treaties such as NPT, BTWC and CCW, and paralyzed CD since 1998. Two highly effective treaties were achieved through humanitarian processes led by cross-regional groups of enlightened Governments in partnership with transnational civil society exerting pressure and providing information and strategies. By reframing prohibition treaty imperatives in humanitarian terms rather than in terms of control and non-proliferation, it became possible to ban anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions through treaties that entered into force in 1999 and 2010, respectively. Meanwhile negotiations under United Nations auspices developed the 2001 Programme of Action on Small Arms and the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Drawing on these histories and evaluating the role of the United Nations and the comparative effectiveness of multilateral agreements on disarmament, the treaties with universal humanitarian as well as disarmament objectives have proved more successful in concrete and security terms than partial treaties limited by the military interests of dominant States. Regardless of a treaty’s origins and negotiating process, some Governments will always try to stay outside disarmament agreements. That does not invalidate multilateral disarmament, since hold-out States become increasingly drawn into compliance (whether or not they formally accede) as treaties become embedded and respected in international law.

Treaties that embed disarmament objectives in “universal humanitarian” rather than “partial control ” terms share a number of elements in common:

  • Whether negotiated in ad hoc or formally constituted United Nations forums, the important requirement for multilateral disarmament success is that negotiations should be open to all United Nations Member States but blockable by none (thereby avoiding the vetoes and consensus deadlock that have paralyzed CD and various cold war treaty review processes.
  • It is up to individual Governments whether they initiate or join negotiations.
  • As with all treaties, it is a sovereign national decision to accede or not, but experience shows that even the policies of opponents become influenced and constrained by well-supported agreements as they become embedded in international law.
  • Relevant United Nations and regional agencies and civil society actors, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, humanitarian and disarmament non-governmental organizations are treated as partners in making these treaties effective.
  • Regardless of how and where a treaty is negotiated, it has become normal practice for negotiators to present the finalized text to be adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, where all States have the opportunity to register their views.
  • Early entry into force is encouraged through representative but practical conditions, so that the treaties can build up legal and normative credibility from the very beginning, making it much harder for the weapons-dependent Governments to continue business as usual.
  • It is not necessary or even desirable to spell out and lock in verification and technical implementation details of the head treaty, given that legal prohibitions and obligations already in place must take precedence. Practical implementation requirements can be agreed upon and adjusted, as the treaties are embedded and more States become parties.

Looking forward, three humanitarian disarmament objectives are being put on the United Nations agenda: a nuclear ban treaty that would prohibit the use, deployment, production, stockpiling and transfer of nuclear weapons and require their total elimination; a ban on autonomous weapons intended to preventively ban “killer robots” before they are deployed and become unstoppable; and a treaty or protocol to prohibit the military use of highly toxic depleted uranium. Momentum is building to achieve all three treaties. Opposition is limited to a handful of weapons-dependent Governments—the same few in most cases. As some but not all are in the Security Council of the United Nations, they are recognized to be influential—but not decisive, as other successful treaties have demonstrated.

The United Nations was founded for “We the Peoples”. Modern disarmament diplomacy has shown that prohibiting weapons that a few dominating States want to deploy is feasible, as long as the humanitarian arguments are persuasive, the ground is prepared well, and an influential cross section of Governments, humanitarian agencies and civil society actors are willing to move forward, initiate negotiations and achieve effective treaties.