The United Nations and Nuclear Disarmament: Nuclear Disarmament Is Central to the Work of the United Nations and Was the Aim of Its First Resolution Adopted in 1946, Reports Angela Kane, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs

By Kane, Angela | Pacific Ecologist, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The United Nations and Nuclear Disarmament: Nuclear Disarmament Is Central to the Work of the United Nations and Was the Aim of Its First Resolution Adopted in 1946, Reports Angela Kane, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs


Kane, Angela, Pacific Ecologist


The doctrine of nuclear deterrence has proven to be contagious. This has made non-proliferation more difficult, which in turn raises new risks that nuclear weapons will be used.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 24 October 2008

On receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959 for his disarmament work, Philip Noel-Baker said: 'Disarmament is not a policy by itself; it is part of the general policy of the UN. But it is a vital part of that policy; without it, the UN institutions can never function as they should! (1)

Four years earlier, then-Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold referred to nuclear disarmament efforts as a 'hardy perennial' at the United Nations. (2) Even the UN's first UN Secretary-General, Trygvie Lie, not known for his views on disarmament, included it in his 'Twenty-Year Programme for Achieving Peace Through the United Nations.' He perceptively argued:

Negotiation on this problem should not be deferred until the other great political problems are solved, but should go hand-in-hand with any effort to reach political settlements. (3)

Earlier still, on 24 January 1946, the General Assembly adopted its first resolution. Its goal? The elimination of all 'atomic weapons' and other weapons 'adaptable to mass destruction,' now widely abbreviated as WMD. (4)

If an international organization could have what resembles DNA, the UN's 'triple helix' would arguably consist of disarmament, the 'regulation of armaments' (often called 'arms control'), and its basic Charter-based norms for the peaceful settlement of disputes and against the threat or use of force. These have evolved into very much more than just goals of the organization. They have become part of the UN's identity, helping define its institutional raison d'etre.

The reasons why disarmament has been and remains a high priority at the UN are a complex blend of realities, ideals and self-interests. The key reality is that, despite a low level of media and public attention, the continued existence of 19,000 nuclear weapons combined with nuclear-use doctrines and an operational readiness to fire such weapons at a moment's notice, creates a very real risk of a nuclear catastrophe by accident, miscalculation or intent. Such a catastrophe would dwarf the Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Fukushima events. Thus, all our Member States, support the goal of global nuclear disarmament. Disagreements have always been over the means to achieve it, not the goal itself. It has also been supported by each UN Secretary-General and none more actively than by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Much of this support is probably a legacy of the global repugnance for the catastrophic humanitarian effects of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the theoretical effects of these weapons were so tragically confirmed on the ground. The bombings were inconsistent with centuries of norms of international humanitarian law, notably those proscribing indiscriminate use of weapons on civilian populations. There is no doubt a moral and legal underpinning for much of this support for disarmament at the United Nations.

Elimination the only guarantee

Nuclear disarmament also has a practical side. It has been recognized by the vast majority of Member States as the most effective way to prevent another use of such weapons. As anyone who has worked in a global intergovernmental organization knows, getting a consensus on virtually anything really important can be quite difficult. Yet at the five-year Review Conferences of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) held in 2000 and 2010, the Parties were able to agree on language saying the total elimination of such weapons offers 'the only absolute guarantee against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.' (5) This is a watershed agreement considering that the major nuclear weapons countries and 185 other States have joined that treaty (every country in the world except India, Israel and Pakistan) and only one country has ever withdrawn (North Korea). …

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