The United Nations and disarmament treaties.

Author:Johnson, Rebecca

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.


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