A Disarming Proposition

Article excerpt

Meeting the Challenge of Sustainable Disarmament

The risks of catastrophic wars are directly related to the motivations and capabilities of states, including the types of weapons that are available to conduct such wars. Disarmament, however, is rarely the focus of serious scholarly analysis these days. Many academics and journalists are devoting far more attention to "arms control," "nonproliferation," "managed proliferation," and, most recently, "counter-proliferation." These are also the terms that now adorn the doors in the official corridors of the great powers. Though disarmament is a respected topic in policy rhetoric, it is all too often trivialized in policy implementation.

One reason may be that the term "disarmament" is badly misunderstood. It is at times unjustly associated with utopian idealism or naivete about world affairs, including the role of war and conflict in international relations. At other times it is seen simply as a discriminatory policy, something that one party does to another, such as the act of disarming a vanquished foe after a war. It is even at times blamed for some historical calamities, such as the alleged failure of disarmament initiatives to prevent the two world wars. It is notoriously underfunded compared to its counterpart--armament--yet it is blamed for being weak.

Disarmament is, in short, a subject that merits closer examination, for it potentially offers much more than merely the reduction or elimination of munitions, the customary definition found in a dictionary. The better this potential is understood, the greater will be the prospects for sustaining disarmament as a goal of national policy and as a priority for the work of international organizations. And ultimately, the prospects for achieving world peace, economic and social development, and a healthy environment will increase as well.

Historical Context

The international community--including both nation-states and the people their leaders represent--has been turning to the United Nations for help in advancing global disarmament objectives since the UN Charter was signed in 1945. Unlike the Covenant of the League of Nations, which did not mention the term explicitly, the Charter refers twice (in Articles 11 and 47) to disarmament as among the United Nations's important goals. Yet it is important to recognize that the Charter does not call for the total elimination of all weapons. The term "general and complete disarmament"--first coined in 1927 by Maxime Litvinoff and currently cited in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), in the Final Document of the General Assembly's first Special Session on Disarmament in 1978, and in other international agreements--does not appear in the Charter.

On the contrary, the Charter explicitly recognizes a persistent need for some arms for some purposes. The primary goal of the Charter, which was drafted in the closing months of World War II, was "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." The rest of the Charter essentially provided the architecture to accomplish that fundamental aim. This framework rested on the explicit understanding that armed force may at times be needed to enforce the peace. Thus one finds in the Charter not only the "inherent right of individual and collective self-defence" (Article 51) but also the recognition that "armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest" (Preamble). The Charter also authorizes the Security Council to take action with respect to "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression" (Chapter VII); this authority specifically includes the use of armed force to maintain or restore international peace and security (Article 42). Article 47 created a Military Staff Committe e consisting of the Chiefs of Staff of the permanent members of the Security Council to advise the Council and to assist it in making "plans for the application of armed force" (Article 46). …

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