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The Amazing Disarmament Work Behind the Scenes of the United Nations
The Amazing Disarmament Work Behind the Scenes of the United Nations

While the title “United Nations” covers the work of the international civil servants at headquarters and the wide range of specialized agencies and programs, credit is seldom given to the daily work they perform. In the field of disarmament, there are several programs working to help identify and bring the range of weaponry and destructive conflict to the fore so disarmament is possible (e.g. First Committee of the General Assembly, the Disarmament Commission, the Conference on Disarmament and other bodies). Today’s blog will focus on the Office for Disarmament Affairs. Originally established in 1982 as a result of the Second Special Session on Disarmament, SSOD II (please see the previous blog on Rev. Homer Alexander Jack). In 1992, its name was changed to Center for Disarmament Affairs. At the end of 1997, it was renamed Department for Disarmament Affairs and in 2007, it became the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

The Office promotes:

  • Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation
  • Strengthening of the disarmament regimes in respect to other weapons of mass destruction, and chemical and biological weapons
  • Disarmament efforts in the area of conventional weapons, especially landmines and small arms, which are the weapons of choice in contemporary conflicts.

The role of the Office for Disarmament Affairs:

  • Organize, service and support meetings on the PoA and ITI​
    PoA refers to the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. ITI refers to that Programme’s associated International Tracing Implement, the International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons;
  • Facilitate exchanges of information;
  • Provide technical advice and assistance, including through the UN Regional Centers;
  • Develop tools, guidelines, standards to facilitate implementation of commitments;
  • Promote system-wide coordination among relevant UN partners;
  • Cooperate with relevant regional and international organizations;
  • Develop and manage trust fund arrangements in cooperation with States wishing to contribute, and UN system partners.

While prior blogs have focused on some areas of their work (see entries on nuclear disarmament [Jan. 30th, Apr. 11th, Jul. 18th, Oct. 3rd], chemical weapons [Apr. 25th], landmines [Aug. 22nd], and autonomous weapons systems [Sep. 5th and 17th]), this blog will address the area of conventional weapons. UNODA fosters disarmament measures via “dialogue, transparency and confidence-building on military matters, and encourages regional disarmament efforts; these include the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms and regional forums.”

A collection of weapons and ammunition from a recent collection program from the UN in Sudan.

A recent United Nations weapon collection was held in 2017-18 in the Darfur region of Sudan.

When the Secretary-General released his 2018 report on May 24th entitled Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda For Disarmament and identified areas for action, e.g. on long-range conventional weapons, including those using hypersonic technologies, UNODA was charged with “carrying out a study, in consultation with governmental experts and civil society on [the] peace and security implications” of these weapons. This charge goes out to all who are asked to provide information on this. National reports are the primary tool to assess the implementation of the UN’s Program of Action, and are used to gather data on the topic from UN member nations. This requires trust on all sides to share the truth about the topic as it pertains to their own information.

The Secretary General’s chapter on Conventional Weapons (promoted online in the UNODA resource cited below) notes the following sad news:

“As we approach almost two decades into the 21st century, armed violence remains disturbingly prevalent in many parts of the world, and the world remains grossly over-armed. Military industries have continued high levels of production and found new markets. Massive conventional arms build-ups are continuing unabated in other parts of the world, especially in certain conflict-prone regions….While we have seen stagnation in conventional arms control at the global level, the absence of disarmament and arms control at the regional, national and local levels has been disastrous. Owing in no small part to the widespread and increasing availability of military-grade and improvised weapons, armed conflicts have become protracted, more complex, more disruptive and more difficult to recover from. Non-State actors are increasingly well equipped, owing to poorly secured stockpiles or to transfers from the illicit market or from States.” (p.33 An Agenda for Disarmament)

Civilians continue to bear the brunt of armed conflict around the globe, and the United States is no exception to this trend. As the Secretary General notes {ibid}, “The humanitarian crises that have invariably followed from recent conflicts are a result of a combination of deliberate attacks on the civilian population and civilian objects, indiscriminate attacks, the inappropriate selection of weapons and a failure by parties to conflict to take constant care to spare civilians and civilian objects from the impacts of warfare. “ If we think back to recent events in our country alone, how true this is.

The charges to UNODA are expansive and important, involving monitoring the progress of the range of disarmament treaties and their implementation, along with outreach to the non-signatory nation States encouraging them to sign on; collecting data and research on new and ongoing topics of concern to the disarmament community; publishing a wide assortment of titles in their annual yearbooks, occasional papers, handbooks, discussions, compilations of GA resolutions, and follow up activities pertaining to disarmament issues et. al.

An examination of conventional weapons includes a category called improvised explosive devices, such as the recent mailed bombs targeting U.S. Democratic leadership. UNODA’s “Agenda for Disarmament” report notes that:  

“The use of improvised explosive devices has escalated significantly in recent years with particularly devastating impacts on civilians… They have been used by non-State armed groups and terrorists, as well as transnational criminal organizations and some State armed forces. In 2017 they affected nearly 50 countries and territories” worldwide. Improvised explosive devices come in many broad categories as “victim-operated”, “command-initiated”, and “time initiated”. “They can be hand-placed, vehicle-based, or delivered by boat, aircraft, or projectile. Their components can be sourced from poorly secured or abandoned munitions, explosive remnants of war, or from common commercial goods acquired from trade. While their use is most often associated with attacks that intentionally target civilian populations, these devices are also used against national police and military personnel, as well as humanitarian workers and United Nations uniformed and civilians staff.” (Ibid.p. 37 Agenda)

Specific treaties that are under the jurisdiction of UNODA are the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The ATT has been the world’s historic first legally binding instrument that regulates the international trade in conventional arms and seeks to prevent and eradicate illicit trade and diversion of conventional arms by establishing international standards governing arms transfers. The Treaty came into force on December 24, 2014. At this stage the Treaty has a total of 99 States Parties and 130 Signatory States. The US has signed but not yet ratified this treaty.

The CCW, or its official name, The Convention on the Prohibition or Restrictions of the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects, entered into force in 1983 with the purpose of banning or restricting the use of specific types of weapons such as weapons with non-detectable fragments, landmines, booby-traps, incendiary weapons, blinding laser weapons, and explosive remnants of war (unexploded ordinances and abandoned explosive weapons). The Convention requires that a member state must sign on to at least two of five protocols pertaining individually to the previous list and allows for additional protocols to be created as the need arises. As of this writing, 125 countries are parties to this treaty. The US signed onto three protocols on Incendiary Weapons, Blinding Laser Weapons, and Explosive Remnants of War in 1980 when the Convention was first open for signatures. The Senate ratified the treaty and the President signed it in 2008 and it came into force for the US in 2009.

These two efforts, among the others mentioned above, are the bright side of working for disarmament. But disregard of these efforts and non-compliance are a rather depressing reality. Nevertheless we must credit the extraordinary work of UNODA for providing the depth of information about disarmament: what has been done so far, and next steps needing attention to help us all gain a wider perspective and become better informed about those efforts that truly need our support in helping to disarm our planet. More information about its work is available on its website: UNODA.org.

About the Author

  • Joanne Dufour is a Volunteer for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office completing a circle of connection with the office since 1968. She was introduced to it in her second year of teaching back then, maintained connections over the course of her career in education,...

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