Consolidating Steps for Disarmament: The United Nations' Growing Role in Arms Control

Article excerpt

Since the United Nations exists to keep peace, it follows that it also has tasks in the field of disarmament. After the failures of the League of Nations, however, the UN Charter is somewhat sparing in its provisions in this respect: "The Security Council shall be responsible for formulating, with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee, plans for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments." The General Assembly also debates disarmament issues as part of its overall responsibility for peace. The Secretary-General is empowered to call the attention of the Security Council to threats to peace and security, and also to place questions of disarmament on the agenda.

In practice, a complex organizational framework for disarmament and arms control has developed within the UN. The General Assembly speaks on these issues in resolutions and, occasionally, in special sessions on disarmament (of which there have been three), which are important in influencing or even setting the international agenda on disarmament. General Assembly resolutions were the basis for the multilateral agreements or conventions which have been negotiated and finally concluded, for example, on nuclear non-proliferation, the sea bed, outer space, biological, environmental and chemical weapons. The new UN Register of Conventional Armaments, cataloguing the trade in such weapons, is the direct result of one such resolution. The General Assembly's agenda-setting capacity should not be underestimated.

The UN's disarmament machinery

The General Assembly is assisted by two subsidiary bodies in matters of arms control. One is its First Committee, which deals exclusively with disarmament issues every year and prepares the resolutions for the Assembly. The other is the Disarmament Commission, to which all UN member states belong, which also meets annually and deals in depth with a maximum of four disarmament topics. However, many observers are sceptical about whether this later body serves any real purpose.

The General Secretariat has a number of important duties in the area of arms control. These include undertaking exploratory studies on disarmament issues, serving as the depository of treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention, working as the secretariat for review conferences on existing multilateral treaties (for example, the 1995 conference on the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), gathering data and compiling the UN arms register. The location in the General Secretariat of the Special Commission which detected and supervised the removal of weapons of mass destruction and a missile programme in Iraq and which now monitors these programmes on a permanent basis, was a particularly important step. This is the responsibility of the office for disarmament, recently upgraded to become the "Centre for Disarmament Affairs". The Secretary-General is assisted by an advisory body, and can also draw on the work of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) in Geneva.

The Security Council has long neglected its duties in the field of disarmament, even though these duties have actually increased due to clauses in various multilateral agreements providing that the Council be convened as a last resort in the event of complaints and treaty infringements. After the Gulf war had dramatically brought home the significance of this role, the first summit meeting of the Security Council (attended by the heads of government of member countries of the Security Council) was held in January 1992. On the initiative of Germany, this meeting expressly reaffirmed that weapons of mass destruction and the breaking of the relevant agreements represented a threat to peace and international security. It was also stated that the Security Council reserves the right, in such cases, to decide on measures to restore peace and security, in other words, to use its full powers within the scope of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, ranging from appeals to the offending state through economic sanctions to military action. …