Disarmament a “distant dream” at General Assembly high-level debate, but requires urgent action

By the numbers:
Disarmament: 27
Nuclear weapons: 41
Arms trade: 21
Explosive weapons: 16
Chemical weapons: 14
Small arms: 10

The theme of this year’s high-level general debate was “delivering on and implementing a transformative post-2015 development agenda”. With Ebola, poverty, inequality, and armed conflict raging in the background as governments negotiate a new set of sustainable development goals, the theme is overripe for action. Disarmament should be a key aspect of any transformative development agenda. Yet very few countries spoke about disarmament or arms control related topics. Perhaps this is because, as the UN Secretary-General remarked, “Disarmament is viewed as a distant dream, sabotaged by profiteers of perpetual warfare.”

Nuclear weapons

Only 41 countries spoke about nuclear weapons this year—down from 65 last year. Yet momentum to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons has far from diminished outside of the General Assembly Hall. Mexico convened the second conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in February 2014, and Austria is set to convene the third in December. Austria’s foreign minister invited states to attend this meeting, noting that the desire to prevent the terrifying consequences of the use of nuclear weapons should unite the world. “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use—on purpose or by accident—remains real,” he warned. And of course nuclear weapons have humanitarian consequences even without being used. Costa Rica’s president pointed out that maintaining and modernising nuclear weapons “requires immense economic and human resources that are necessary for responding to the key challenges of our time, such as achieving the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Arms trade

Paraguay’s permanent representative noted that disarmament and arms control are key to ensuring sustainable economic and social development. Arms production and international arms trading absorbs vast resources and result in death and destruction the world over. Over 20 countries discussed the destabilising effect of irresponsible arms transfers; many of these welcomed the fact that the Arms Trade Treaty has now received the 50 ratifications necessary for its entry into force. The effective implementation of this Treaty could make it a useful preventative tool against armed violence and armed conflict.

Explosive weapons

Strong tools are also needed to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The shelling and bombing of populated neighborhoods in Syria, Gaza, and Ukraine created devastating humanitarian situations, killing civilians, destroying vital infrastructure, and leaving lasting psychological damage. More governments than ever raised this issue in the general debate, focusing mainly on the barrage against Gaza conducted by Israel earlier this year. Some called for concerted action to prevent this from happening again, with Costa Rica’s president calling on states to “develop stricter rules and commitments to prohibit and restrict” the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.


Developing new international treaties and political commitments on disarmament and arms control—and effectively implementing the ones we already have—will be essential in the achievement of a transformative development agenda. All countries must work in good faith to achieve the goals to which we all aspire: a nuclear weapons free world; the prevention of human suffering from explosive weapons, small arms, and other conventional arms; and diverting the least possible resources to armaments, as espoused in article 26 of the UN Charter. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ foreign minister spoke of international law as one of the “bulwarks against the type of naked aggression and unilateralism that have too often led our nations to the precipice of war.” Upholding this law, and developing new law and norms where necessary, should be central to our efforts at this upcoming session of First Committee and beyond.

Reaching Critical Will, with the assistance of WILPF’s PeaceWomen programme, tracked all references to disarmament and arms control at this year’s UNGA general debate. The Disarmament Index is available at www.reachingcriticalwill.org. PeaceWomen maintains an index on gender and women, available at www.peacewomen.org.