Author’s note: Security Council Report is an independent think tank dedicated to supporting a more effective, transparent, and accountable U.N. Security Council (previous reports on disarmament available here). A version of this article will appear in Security Council Report’s September Monthly Forecast.
With the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) ending in disappointment last week, failing to step up to “the urgency of the moment”, what avenues exist for U.N. Security Council regulation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)?
The question is a critical one. In 2018, the Secretary-General said that the global disarmament agenda had not only stalled but was “moving in the wrong direction.” His signature 2021 report, Our Common Agenda (OCA), amplified this concern, with multilateral disarmament negotiations long deadlocked, bilateral channels permitted to stagnate, limits on major conventional forces left aside, and no measures in place “to prevent rapid escalation resulting from strategic threats in new domains, including cyberspace and outer space” (OCA p. 3).
Recent U.N. Discussions
WMD have featured prominently in recent United Nations discussions. On May 26, the Security Council voted on a U.S.-initiated draft resolution updating and strengthening the North Korea (DPRK) sanctions regime imposed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718. The draft resolution was vetoed by China and Russia, arguing among other things that strengthening the sanctions regime would not help resolve tensions on the Korean peninsula, while the remaining 13 Council members voted in its favor. Consequently, on June 8, the General Assembly held a debate on the DPRK sanctions regime in accordance with its resolution A/RES/76/262, which stipulates that the President of the General Assembly shall convene a formal meeting of the General Assembly within ten working days of a veto being cast by a permanent member of the Council.
In August, the five-yearly Review Conference of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty convened, having been postponed for two years due to COVID-19. NPT RevCons aims for States parties to produce a consensus document that assesses the treaty’s implementation, establishes updated commitments, and provides recommendations to advance the NPT’s objectives. NPT RevCons have been contentious, and this year’s was no different. After four weeks of negotiations, the conference concluded in failure on August 26, over Russian objections to language on the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Experts found the rejected draft limited in ambition, in any case; the director of the U.S.-based Arms Control Association remarked that the five declared nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) had rejected “pragmatic proposals” for specific, time-bound commitments to fulfil their NPT disarmament obligations.
The world’s nuclear risks have grown in recent years, with extensive modernization of nuclear arsenals reported in 2022 (and overall global military expenditure reaching $2.1 trillion), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. As well, a broad swath of arms control treaties negotiated outside the U.N. framework has been allowed to expire in recent years. While leaders have recently reaffirmed the 1985 declaration by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, nuclear signaling by senior Russian officials has heightened threat perceptions in this regard, particularly in connection with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Plans to resume the Strategic Stability Dialogue between Russia and the United States aimed at laying the groundwork for arms control and risk reduction measures were suspended following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The DPRK’s recent rhetoric concerning the use of nuclear weapons and Iran’s uranium enrichment activities have also elevated nuclear tensions globally.
Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Historic Security Council Responsibilities
The new realities, the Secretary-General says, demand that disarmament and non-proliferation be put at the center of the work of the United Nations. But what are the prospects for constructive Security Council attention to disarmament at a time when relations among nuclear powers have continued to deteriorate?
The Council has a historic responsibility under the U.N. Charter in this regard. According to Article 26 of the Charter, the Council is to formulate, with the Military Staff Committee, plans “for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments,” with the overall aim being “the least diversion for armaments” of the world’s human and economic resources. In January 1947, the Council accepted as one of its most urgent tasks the global elimination of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, in line with General Assembly Resolution 41(1), underlining that the general reduction of armaments and armed forces was an important measure for strengthening international peace and security.
Early Security Council WMD initiatives were soon overtaken by the Cold War, however, and the dissolutions of the Commission on Conventional Armaments and the Atomic Energy Committee in 1952 arguably marked the end of the Council’s substantive work on the regulation of armaments based on Article 26. The General Assembly stepped up, and has been instrumental in the adoption of treaties regulating WMD, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968), the Convention on the Prohibition of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons (1972), the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (1992), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1996), and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (2017).
In the aftermath of the Cold War, the Security Council undertook several non-proliferation initiatives. Resolution 1540, adopted in 2004 under Chapter VII of the Charter, requires all states to establish controls over WMD and the means to deliver them, and to enact and enforce the necessary national implementing legislation with the objective of prohibiting terrorists and other non-state actors from developing, acquiring and using WMD. (While the aim is often described as keeping WMD out of the wrong hands, former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said – and many activists believe – that there are no “right hands” for handling “these wrong weapons.”) Following a spate of Council meetings in 2004-5, on Nov. 19, 2008, Council member Costa Rica convened a thematic debate to consider Article 26 and the Council’s duty to promote peace with the least diversion of resources for armaments. And in September 2009, the Security Council held a summit-level meeting on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament, adopting Resolution 1887 which, the U.N. noted, “affirmed its commitment to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and established a broad framework for reducing global nuclear dangers.”
Security Council Engagement Today – and Prospects for Tomorrow
Since 2010, the level of Council engagement has fallen. Debates on general disarmament and its role in the maintenance of international peace and security are rare. In January 2018, Kazakhstan held a debate on WMD and confidence-building, and in February 2020, the Council held a briefing on non-proliferation with a specific focus on supporting the NPT ahead of the 2020 RevCon. Last September, Ireland convened a briefing on the 25th anniversary of the opening for signature of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). In the main, the Council addresses sanctions pertaining to WMD (as, currently, in the DPRK and Iran, in the latter case with six resolutions imposing sanctions between 2010 and 2015), and monitoring, verification or fact-finding (as in Iraq in the early-mid 2000s and, in Syria, through the Joint Investigative Mechanism with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) without necessarily overseeing the political processes seeking non-proliferation in these settings. It criticizes nuclear tests, such as those by India and Pakistan in 1998 and the DPRK’s six tests between 2006 and 2017, and at times imposes sanctions as a result.
Currently, the three principal institutions of the U.N. disarmament machinery are the main negotiating body, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, and two General Assembly subsidiary bodies, the U.N. Disarmament Commission, which deliberates disarmament issues, both nuclear and conventional, and the First Committee, on Disarmament and International Security, which adopts resolutions. The U.N. Secretariat includes the Office for Disarmament Affairs (ODA) and the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters and, independently of the Secretariat, the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
Under present circumstances, is there merit in looking to Article 26 for a revival of Council engagement on WMD, or to the General Assembly to exercise its role? Reform advocates are scrutinizing underutilised provisions of the U.N. Charter as holding out possible prospects for re-energizing multilateralism. One initiative member states might consider, at the very least, would be to quash the widespread public belief that possession of nuclear weapons is a qualification for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council – an obvious misperception, as at the time of the U.N.’s founding, only the United States possessed nuclear weapons.
With the nuclear weapons states tending to argue that the security environment is not conducive to disarmament, prospects today appear limited for the Security Council to advance the global regulation of nuclear weapons and the general reduction of armaments. Still, global security tensions are the very reason some Council members might search for innovative ways of pursuing this agenda. The issue of WMD has multiple potential entry points to the Council: experts have noted the impact of reframing the disarmament debate from a security issue into a pressing humanitarian concern, with an important precedent in the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. The women, peace and security agenda is another option, with women having played significant roles in campaigning for disarmament. Youth engagement is another avenue. The Council’s referral to the General Assembly, earlier this year, of a matter on which they were deadlocked might appear to open up similar prospects for greater Assembly action on WMD.
 On April 26, Kim Jong-un said that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons “can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent,” leading some analysts to speculate that the DPRK may be willing to use nuclear force preemptively.
 The terms “disarmament” and “non-proliferation” are at times used interchangeably, although their meanings are different; increasingly, “disarmament” appears as the catch-all term for the regulation of armaments.
 Arts 11(1) and 47(1) of the Charter also pertain to the limitation of armaments.
 Simma, Bruno (ed), Commentary on the Charter of the United Nations, OUP 1995, p. 419. Simma observes, however, that “[t]aken as a whole, the UN Charter gives little priority to the limitation of armaments,” especially when compared to the League of Nations Covenant, in which this had been enshrined “as a principle of international law,” and points out that “the concept of securing the peace, by military means, within the framework of a concept of collective security has always had priority over the concept of the limitation of armaments” (p. 420).