Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Making Disarmament Work

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Making Disarmament Work

Article excerpt

What can be done to reduce swollen arms budgets?

THE arguments in favour of disarmament have always been based on three main assumptions: that a) it is immoral to accumulate stocks of weapons; b) this build-up is a threat to peace, and c) the economic cost is reflected in artificial or misdirected development.

The moral argument has always been put forward strongly against chemical weapons and, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also against nuclear weapons. The industrial production of arms has permitted long-drawn-out wars and enabled unprecedented violence to be unleashed. The cost of modern weaponry is hard to sustain and has literally devastated the economies of some countries.

However, these simple facts have not sufficed to win full acceptance for the concept of general disarmament. That idea was widely endorsed in the 1950s. It gave way in the 1960s to the more realistic, but at the same time more limited, notion of arms control. The major nuclear powers negotiated to reach agreement on certain rules of coexistence and on the development of their respective arsenals. The aim was no longer to disarm or even to freeze the growth of arms stockpiles, but to impose a framework on that growth in areas where the powers were willing to engage in discussions with each other. At no time did the American and Soviet stockpiles of nuclear weapons grow more rapidly than during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in the 1970s.

The changes which took place in the late 1980s, especially in the former USSR., enabled real agreements on the withdrawal and destruction of weapons to be negotiated and concluded. However, the optimism soon faded. The 1987 US-Soviet Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and the 1991 START 1 Treaty(1) on strategic missiles only concerned limited quantities of weaponry. Moreover, the application of these treaties is fraught with uncertainty following the break-up of the Eastern bloc. Last but not least, the vast area of the South is not covered by any global or regional disarmament process.


Hopes of disarmament are thwarted by countless difficulties and objections, particularly of a political nature. The creation of armed forces and industries to guarantee self-sufficiency in the procurement of military hardware and the adaptation of these resources to technical progress, are privileges of national independence. The period of decolonization which began at the end of the Second World War naturally led to considerable growth in conventional arsenals belonging to the new sovereign states. Agreements encompassing the Third World might be viewed by some of these countries as intolerable limitations on their sovereignty. How can these countries be prevented from thinking that the Western nations only discover the dangers of weaponry when they have no prospect of effecting new sales? What justification can there be for the image of rich countries which believe nuclear weapons are good for themselves, but unacceptable for others?

Moreover, translating the concept of disarmament into law is a very complicated business. Treaties leading to a general ban on weapons are very difficult to draw up and even more difficult to implement and enforce. Regional agreements are more effective but presuppose the settlement of existing conflicts and the opening of a sincere political dialogue between the countries of a particular region.

In Europe, one of the main obstacles to the disarmament process at present resides in the disappearance of the states that were to negotiate and apply these accords. The break-up of the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO), the fragmentation of the former USSR and the weakening of certain countries, illustrate the scale of the problems to be solved. What is more, no one can predict what the situation will be in a few years' time. …

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