United Nations

The United Nations is an intergovernmental organization that maintains international peace and security, develops relations, and promotes human rights.

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About the Treaty

  • Established: 1945
  • Non-member States: Holy See, State of Palestine
  • Secretary-General: Antonio Guterres (2017-2021)
  • Deputy Secretary-General: Amina J. Mohammed (2017-    )

Background

In 1945, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter. Those delegates deliberated on the basis of proposals worked out by the representatives of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States at Dumbarton Oaks, United States, in August-October 1944. The Charter was signed on 26 June 1945 by the representatives of the 50 countries. Poland, which was not represented at the Conference, signed it later and became one of the original 51 member states.

As mandated by its Charter, maintaining international peace and security is the central purpose of the United Nations. Although the Charter does not directly reference nuclear weapons, some of the UN’s major goals include halting the spread of arms and reducing and eventually eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. Since its establishment, the UN has been an ongoing forum for nonproliferation and disarmament treaties, negotiations, deliberations, and expert studies. The principal UN organs that deal with international peace and security, arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation are the UN Security Council (UNSC), the First Committee of the General Assembly (UNGA), and the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA).

Under Article 26 of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is tasked with the “establishment and maintenance of international peace and security… and the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments.” The UNSC is composed of 15 member states: five permanent members with veto powers (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States) and ten additional members, each elected by the General Assembly for a term of two years. After determining “the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or an act of aggression,” the UNSC may recommend or take preventative or enforcement measures including economic or political measures or the use of force. As such, the Security Council is the only international body that can authorize punitive measures such as sanctions or military action against a state. In the area of nonproliferation, the UNSC has authorized mandatory sanctions against Iraq, the DPRK, and Iran; created the Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC); and established other important subsidiary organs such as the Counter-Terrorism Committee and the 1540 Committee. For more detail on the Security Council and recent developments in the nonproliferation field, see the Security Council section.

UN General Assembly

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) is a representative international body tasked to consider, among other things, disarmament and international security issues. On 24 January 1946, the first General Assembly session passed Resolution 1(I) on the “Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy,” which addressed concerns about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Since then, the body annually adopts resolutions and decisions on nonproliferation, disarmament, and arms control on the recommendation of its First Committee, which considers issues relating to international peace and security. Some of the most notable decisions related to disarmament, nonproliferation, and arms control include the endorsement of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968; the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1972; the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1992; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996; and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in 2013. The General Assembly has also held three special sessions on disarmament (SSOD) in 1978, 1982, and 1988. The UN Disarmament Commission (UNDC) is a deliberative body and a subsidiary organ of the UNGA. Reestablished in 1978, it is tasked to formulate guidelines, principles, and recommendations for disarmament-related issues. For more detail on the General Assembly and recent developments in the nonproliferation field, see the pages for the General Assembly and the First Committee.

UN Office for Disarmament Affairs

The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) was originally established as the Department of Disarmament Affairs (DDA) in 1982 upon the recommendation of the General Assembly’s second special session on disarmament (SSOD II) and functioned as a department until 1992. From 1992-1997 it functioned as a Center under the Department of Political Affairs. The DDA was re-established in 1998 as part of the Secretary-General’s program for reform in accordance with his report A/51/950 to the General Assembly. In 2007, the name was changed to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA).

UNODA promotes the goals of disarmament and nonproliferation as well as strengthening the international regimes dealing with weapons of mass destruction. It also promotes disarmament efforts in the area of conventional weapons, especially land mines and small arms, which are the weapons of choice in contemporary conflicts. UNODA is composed of five branches: Conference on Disarmament Secretariat & Conference Support Branch, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Branch, the Conventional Arms Branch, the Regional Disarmament Branch, and the Monitoring, Database and Information Branch. For more detail on the department’s role in nonproliferation and disarmament, see the page for the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.

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Glossary

United Nations Security Council
United Nations Security Council: Under the United Nations Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. The Council consists of fifteen members, five of which—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are permanent members. The other ten members are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. The five permanent members possess veto powers. For additional information, see the UNSC.
United Nations General Assembly
The UN General Assembly is the largest body of the United Nations. It includes all member states, but its resolutions are not legally binding. It is responsible for much of the work of the United Nations, including controlling finances, passing resolutions, and electing non-permanent members of the Security Council. It has two subsidiary bodies dealing particularly with security and disarmament: the UN General Assembly Committee on Disarmament and International Security (First Committee); and the UN Disarmament Commission. For additional information, see the UNGA.
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The NPT: Signed in 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the most widely adhered-to international security agreement. The “three pillars” of the NPT are nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Article VI of the NPT commits states possessing nuclear weapons to negotiate in good faith toward halting the arms race and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The Treaty stipulates that non-nuclear-weapon states will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, and will accept International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on their nuclear activities, while nuclear weapon states commit not to transfer nuclear weapons to other states. All states have a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and should assist one another in its development. The NPT provides for conferences of member states to review treaty implementation at five-year intervals. Initially of a 25-year duration, the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995. For additional information, see the NPT.
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
The BTWC: The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (BTWC) prohibits the development, production, or stockpiling of bacteriological and toxin weapons. Countries must destroy or divert to peaceful purposes all agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery within nine months after the entry into force of the convention. The BTWC was opened for signature on April 10, 1972, and entered into force on March 26, 1975. In 1994, the BTWC member states created the Ad Hoc Group to negotiate a legally binding BTWC Protocol that would help deter violations of the BTWC. The draft protocol outlines a monitoring regime that would require declarations of dual-use activities and facilities, routine visits to declared facilities, and short-notice challenge investigations. For additional information, see the BTWC.
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) requires each state party to declare and destroy all the chemical weapons (CW) and CW production facilities it possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, as well as any CW it abandoned on the territory of another state. The CWC was opened for signature on 13 January 1993, and entered into force on 29 April 1997. For additional information, see the CWC.
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)
The CTBT: Opened for signature in 1996 at the UN General Assembly, the CTBT prohibits all nuclear testing if it enters into force. The treaty establishes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to ensure the implementation of its provisions and verify compliance through a global monitoring system upon entry into force. Pending the treaty’s entry into force, the Preparatory Commission of the CTBTO is charged with establishing the International Monitoring System (IMS) and promoting treaty ratifications. CTBT entry into force is contingent on ratification by 44 Annex II states. For additional information, see the CTBT.
United Nations Disarmament Commission (UNDC)
The UNDC was established in 1952 as a deliberative body. The purpose of the UNDC is to examine and make recommendations on disarmament issues, and to follow-up and evaluate decisions made within special sessions.
Conference on Disarmament (CD)
The CD is an international forum focused on multilateral disarmament efforts. Although it reports to the UN General Assembly and has a relationship with the United Nations, it adopts its own rules of procedure and agenda, giving it some degree of independence. The CD has a permanent agenda devoted to the negotiation of disarmament issues. The CD and its predecessors have negotiated major nonproliferation and disarmament agreements such as the NPT, the BTWC, the CWC, and the CTBT. In recent years, the CD has focused on negotiating a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS); and negative security assurances. For additional information, see the CD.

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