UN and Nuclear Weapons

The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental, global forum founded after World War II, in 1945, to promote international cooperation. One of the goals and main tasks of the UN is to maintain international peace and security. The UN system has six main bodies, of which the Security Council and the General Assembly are two of them. The UN’s very first resolution, in 1946, dealt with nuclear weapons.

UN General Assembly

The UN General Assembly is a consensus-building community where all member states must be able to agree on issues relating to international peace and security. The General Assembly meets for one month every autumn. The meeting begins with two weeks of general debate, after which it splits into six committees. Each Member State has the right to participate in all committees.

The committees discuss various special areas, consider proposals on issues related to this area and finally recommend resolutions to be adopted by the UN General Assembly. These resolutions do not become legally binding, but are considered normative. Resolutions adopted by consensus also indicate that an issue can be negotiated and lead to legally binding agreement and international law.

Among many issues, the General Assembly discusses principles of cooperation in maintaining international peace and security, including disarmament. These discussions may lead to recommendations to Member States and the UN Security Council. The very first UN General Assembly resolution came in 1946 calling for the abolition of atomic weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. Each year, the General Assembly adopts 40–50 resolutions on disarmament and non-proliferation by a majority vote or by consensus.

First Committee of the General Assembly

The First Committee of the General Assembly deals with disarmament issues and international security. There, all states can present their positions regarding disarmament and debate. Together, the states can find compromise solutions or reach consensus and agree on norms for how to act on various issues.

Member states in the First Committee can discuss how best to reach common security arrangements that minimize military spending; reduces arms production and arms trade and increases global security. The consensus built in the First Committee can be used in other disarmament contexts, for example in the Conference on Disarmament, CD, to negotiate agreements.

Challenges for disarmament work

First Committee of the General Assembly has, in theory, good opportunities to push for disarmament, but due to the fact that states see security in different ways, and cannot always perceive that what one country believes constitutes security for them (e.g. possession of nuclear weapons) automatically increases insecurity for others countries (which are worried about being attacked with nuclear weapons). The discussion in the first committee is somewhat static, with a lack of ability to pay attention to each other’s positions and review their own. Therefore, concrete work is rarely carried out in the committee.

Statements made in the First Committee highlight the problems that stand in the way of progress on issues of disarmament, non-proliferation, peace and security. Some resolutions come back year after year and are adopted with almost total consensus, sometimes with a couple of states voting against or abstaining. Some states do not listen to consensus but push their issue or refuse to cooperate on an issue, which leads to both frustration and tension, and work to a standstill.

United Nations Disarmament Commission

In 1952, the UN General Assembly established the Commission on Disarmament through Resolution 502. The Commission was given a general mandate on disarmament issues. However, the Commission met sporadically in the years after 1959.

A major success for the Commission on Disarmament was the first special session on disarmament in June 1978 (called SSOD1). SSOD1 took place at a time when both the nuclear arms race and the rearmament of conventional weapons were in full swing. SSOD1 made the Disarmament Commission a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly.

As a result, the issue of disarmament gained a stronger position within the UN’s work. SSOD1 was followed by SSOD2 and SSOD3. Many believe that an SSOD4 is needed to reiterate and confirm the principles and priorities for achieving nuclear disarmament made by the previous special sessions.

Mandates and meetings

The UN Disarmament Commission does not make any decisions, but is a body for consultation between member states. The commission can then come up with proposals and recommendations regarding various problems regarding disarmament. The commission also follows up on decisions and recommendations from the special sessions.

The Disarmament Commission meets for three weeks each spring. The member countries work both in joint meetings and in working groups, the number of working groups depends on the number of topics on the agenda. Five geographical groups take turns chairing the Commission, which reports on its activities to the UN General Assembly.

In 1999, the UN Disarmament Commission adopted principles regarding the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones, but between 1999–2017, no concrete work was carried out. In 2017, a report on new recommendations on practical confidence-building measures in the field of conventional weapons was published, but after that the commission has stood still.

The Blix commission’s report

On the initiative of the former Swedish Social democrat foreign minister Anna Lindh, an independent international commission on weapons of mass destruction, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, WMDC, was appointed in 2003, which was led by the Swedish diplomat Hans Blix.

In June 2006, the WMDC presented its final report “Weapons of Terror – Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms”. The report describes the international system of non-proliferation, disarmament and arms control and contains 60 recommendations on what the international community, national governments, civil society and business can and should do to address the global challenge posed by weapons of mass destruction.

The report and its recommendations have received considerable attention worldwide. Its recommendations have been discussed at meetings of NPT conferences and at the United Nations, not much has been implemented in practice.

Sources and more information

History of the UN, United Nations, UN
Nuclear Weapons, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, UNODA
United Nations Disarmament Commission, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, UNODA
Weapons of Terror – Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms, The Weapon of Mass Destruction Commission


Swedish Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons

Last updated
21 December, 2022