United Nations General Assembly
The General Assembly (UNGA) is the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the United Nations. Comprising all 193 Members of the United Nations, it provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the Charter.
The UNGA can adopt resolutions that are declaratory, i.e. stating the collective opinion of all States voting in favour. It can also make decisions, such as establishing UN observance days, expert groups/commissions, treaty negotiations and making referrals to the International Court of Justice (for advisory opinions).
Disarmament issues are mostly discussed in the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security Committee). Resolutions agreed at the First Committee are then referred to the UNGA plenary for final adoption. The Committee is serviced by the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs and works in close cooperation with the United Nations Disarmament Commission and the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament.
Representatives of Non-Governmental Organisations can observe general UNGA deliberations if registered with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) or for specific meetings if registered through the UN department facilitating the meeting – for disarmament meetings this is usually the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs.
- UN Office of Disarmament Affairs
- Reaching Critical Will – a platform for information on UN meetings and resolutions on disarmament issues.
- NGO Committee on Disarmament – Coalition of NGOs engaged in disarmament at the United Nations
- Disarmament Times – journal published by the NGO Committee on Disarmament
United Nations Security Council
The UN Security Council has 15 members, five of which are permanent and the other 10 elected for two-year terms. Each of the five permanent members (P-5) of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) have veto power over any Security Council decision.
Under the UN Charter, the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in the world. Nuclear weapons should feature on the agenda of the Security Council due to the threat these pose to peace and security. Indeed the Security Council often deals with the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. This has included action relating to the 1998 nuclear tests of India and Pakistan, the nuclear program of Iraq, the Iranian nuclear energy program, the North Korean nuclear tests, the provision of security guarantees to non-nuclear States, the establishment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, and preventing of acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-State actors (terrorist organisations).
However, the P-5 who are all possessors of nuclear weapons, have generally blocked any action on nuclear disarmament. An exception was the special session of the UN Security Council chaired by US President Barack Obama on 24 September 2009 which produced UN Security Council Resolution 1887. The resolution did not commit the nuclear-armed States to anything beyond what they had already agreed in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, i.e. the obligation to negotiate for nuclear disarmament. However, it was an important step, demonstrating that the Security Council does have a responsibility to take action on this issue.
Indeed, Article 26 requires the UN Security Council to develop a plan for disarmament in order to ensure ‘the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources.’ Nuclear disarmament should be part of this plan. The responsibility of the Security Council to act is strengthened by the repeated UN General Assembly resolutions calling for nuclear disarmament and the unanimous conclusion of the International Court of Justice in 1996 that ‘There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control”.
In 2008, Costa Rica initiated a special session of the UN Security Council on implementation of Article 26. The session, chaired by Oscar Arias the President of Costa Rica, did not result in the adoption of a resolution – but did set the example for further such special sessions.
In November 2013, following the success of P-5 cooperation to address Syrian Chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear energy program Global Zero launched an initiative calling on the Security Council to take further action to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. See TAKE ACTION: Sign the Global Zero petition.
For further information see
- The UN Security Council and disarmament (UN Office of Disarmament Affairs);
- Global Zero: the UN Security Council, diplomacy and eliminating WMD;
- UN press release on the Special Session on Article 26;
- UN press release on the adoption of resolution 1887;
- UN Security Council Committee on Resolution 1540
Some of the UN Security Council resolutions on nuclear non-proliferation
- Res 984 (1995) – Provision of security assurance to non-nuclear States that they will receive assistance of nuclear weapons are used against them (positive security assurances). The resolution also notes the assurances that the nuclear weapon States have made to non-nuclear States that they will, in general, not use nuclear weapons against them.
- Res 1172 (1998) on the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan;
- Res 1540 (2004) on Preventing non-State actors from developing, acquiring, manufacturing, possessing, transporting, transferring or using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their delivery systems;
- Res 1718 (2006) on the nuclear test by North Korea;
United Nations Secretary General
The UN Secretary-General (UNSG) is chief administrative officer of the United Nations. He is required to oversee the general running of the UN including implementation of tasks and functions entrusted to him or her by the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council and other United Nations organs. In one sense the UNSG is employed by the member States of the UN, as expressed through decisions of the main UN organs.
On the other hand, the UNSG does have some independence. S/he can, for example, “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”. The UNSG can highlight certain issues which are of importance to the UN membership and world community as a whole – even if this means challenging some member States.
S/he can also use the “good offices of the UNSG” to meet with States and other key actors to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading – including to assist in mediating conflicts. Some of the conflicts mediated by the UNSG have related to nuclear weapons, e.g. the Rainbow Warrior.
The UNSG has a number of formal roles with respect to nuclear disarmament, including to:
- receive the views of member States and submit reports on specific questions asked by the UN General Assembly and Security Council;
- appoint the UN High Representative on Disarmament Affairs;
- chair the UNSG Advisory Board on Disarmament Affairs;
“Nuclear disarmament progress is off track. Delay comes with a high price tag. The longer we procrastinate, the greater the risk that these weapons will be used, will proliferate or be acquired by terrorists. But, our aim must be more than keeping the deadliest of weapons from “falling into the wrong hands.” There are no right hands for wrong weapons.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks at the Monterey Institute of International Studies entitled “Advancing the Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Agenda: Seeking Peace in an Over-armed World”, 18 January 2013.
In addition, UNSG’s have taken additional action to advance nuclear disarmament including speeches to key UN bodies and on related UN Days, key media events including from significant places (e.g. Hiroshima and the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site), support for key nuclear disarmament education efforts (such as writing introductions for the IPU Handbook and Religions for Peace Resource Guide), circulation of key guides to nuclear disarmament including a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, and the appointment of UN Messengers for Peace with specific expertise in nuclear disarmament – particularly Michael Douglas.
On 24 October 2008, the UNSG released a Five-Point Proposal for Nuclear Disarmament – which brought together a number of key proposals in a practical and comprehensive plan. The proposal has gained considerable traction, including the support of all 164 member parliaments of the Inter Parliamentary Union. It has also provided a basis for constructive deliberations at the UN Open Ended Working Group. However, it’s key proposal for negotiations to commence on a nuclear weapons convention (or package of agreements) has not yet been agreed by some of the nuclear-weapon States or their nuclear allies.
“Security experts and defence analysts have come to understand that nuclear weapons, far from ensuring a balance of power, are inherently destabilizing. Such weapons have no legitimate place in our world. Their elimination is both morally right and a practical necessity in protecting humanity.”
— UNSG Ban Ki-moon, message to Hiroshima Peace Memorial, 6 August 2012.
Some of UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s statements on nuclear disarmament:
- Contagious doctrine of nuclear deterrence, UN New York, 24 October 2008 (includes the release of the UNSG’s Five-Point Proposal);
- My Goal, Our Goal, is to make the whole world a nuclear-Weapon-Free zone.” – speech to Conference of States Parties to nuclear-weapon-free zones, 30 April 2010;
- Political will from the streets to the corridors of power – the role of parliamentarians, UN New York, 6 May 2010;
- UNSG speech to UN Security Council on lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, 19 April 2012;
- Secretary-General’s remarks to the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament, 26 September 2013
UN Office for Disarmament Affairs
The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) was originally established in 1982 as the Department for Disarmament Affairs upon the recommendation of the General Assembly’s second special session on disarmament (SSOD II).
UNODA provides organizational support for the disarmament work of the General Assembly, Disarmament Commission, Conference on Disarmament and some treaty bodies such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It services meetings of such bodies, assists with implementation of resolutions (especially those with specific requests of the UN), and fosters disarmament measures established by the UN such as the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.
UNODA supports disarmament education initiatives and resources, and provides up-to-date information on multilateral disarmament issues and activities to Member States, intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, educational institutions, civil society and the media. This information includes the following databases:
- UN General Assembly resolutions and decisions on disarmament
- Disarmament treaties
- Military expenditures
- Global Arms Trade
UNODA also supports the development and implementation of practical disarmament measures after a conflict, such as disarming and demobilizing former combatants and helping them to reintegrate into civil society.
UNODA has its main offices at the UN in New York, Geneva and Vienna, as well as regional offices in Lima, Togo and Kathmandu. It is headed by the UN High Representative of Disarmament Affairs, a position currently held by Angela Kane, and the Director of the UNODA, a position currently held by Virginia Gamba.
Conference on Disarmament
The Conference on Disarmament (CD) was established in 1979 as a permanent multilateral disarmament negotiating forum. It arose from the first Special Session on Disarmament of the United Nations General Assembly held in 1978. It succeeded other Geneva-based negotiating fora, which include the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1960), the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1962-68), and the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969-78).
The CD membership comprises 65 countries. Other countries can participate as observers. The CD is independent of the United Nations. However, its secretary is appointed by the UN Secretary-General; it is required to consider recommendations from the General Assembly; and it submits reports to the UN General Assembly. The CD has three sessions each year, the first begins in January and lasts for 10 weeks; the second begins in May and lasts 7 weeks and the third in July and lasts 7 weeks. Decisions of the CD are taken by consensus.
The CD and its predecessors have negotiated a number of major multilateral arms limitation and disarmament agreements including the:
- Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons
- Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques
- Seabed Arms Control Treaty
- Biological Weapons Convention
- Chemical Weapons Convention
- Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty
However, since 1996 consensus on a work program has not been achieved. The CD has thus been unable to commence negotiations on any of the topics that are part of the draft agenda, i.e. a treaty on controlling fissile materials, binding assurances that nuclear weapons will not be used against non-nuclear States, prevention of an arms race in outer space and nuclear disarmament. This block in the CD has led to some multilateral disarmament agreements being negotiated outside the CD – including the Arms Trade Treaty, Cluster Munitions Convention, Landmines Convention and Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. In 2013, in light of the continuing inability of the CD to undertake any substantive work on nuclear disarmament since 1996, the United Nations General Assembly established the UN Open Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations.
For more information see:
Open Ended Working Group
International Court of Justice
The International Court of Justice was established in June 1945 as part of the United Nations. All States that become members of the United Nations accept the authority of the ICJ as the world’s principal judicial organ, as indicated in the Charter of the United Nations.
The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States (contentious cases), and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies. The Court, which sits in the Hague (Netherlands) is composed of15 judges, who are elected for terms of office of nine years by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council.
The Court can consider contentious cases if the States concerned have accepted its jurisdiction in one or more of the following ways:
- Agreeing to submit the specific dispute to the Court;
- Being parties to a treaty which provides for reference to the Court for disputes between States Parties over compliance with the treaty;
- Making a declaration to the Court accepting the jurisdiction of the Court for disputes with other States having made similar declarations. To date, 70 countries have made such declarations.
The decisions of the Court in contentious cases are binding on the parties concerned.
The UN General Assembly and the Security Council are empowered by the UN Charter request the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on any legal question. Other United Nations Organs and specialized agencies authorized by the General Assembly may also request advisory opinions of the Court on legal questions arising within the scope of their activities. Advisory opinions are not binding on the organs or agencies that request them. It is up to those agencies to decide how to implement the advisory opinions. However, the advisory opinions may affirm or clarify aspects of international law that are binding.
Cases relating to nuclear weapons
The Court can, and has, considered specific cases on nuclear policies and practices, including on nuclear tests and on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The Court can also consider cases regarding disputes between countries, or on security issues, the resolution of which could enhance the cooperative security environment to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world.
Nuclear Tests Case 1973 – helps end atmospheric nuclear tests
Australia and New Zealand lodged cases against France in May 1973 for its atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons at Moruroa and Fangataufa in the Pacific (French Polynesia). See NZ v France and Australia v France. The court made an interim order on 22 June 1973 for France to cease nuclear tests until the case was concluded. France reported to the Court in July 1974 that it was ceasing its atmospheric nuclear testing program. As such, the ICJ declared on 20 December 1974 that the purpose of the claims by Australia and New Zealand against France, i.e. the cessation of atmospheric nuclear tests, had been achieved, and thus there was no need to continue the case.
Nuclear Tests Case 1995 – helps end underground nuclear tests
New Zealand lodged an appeal in the Court against France in August 1995 for the resumption of underground nuclear testing in French Polynesia. France had withdrawn its general acceptance of ICJ jurisdiction in 1974, as a response to the 1973 nuclear tests case. However, New Zealand claimed that the Court still had jurisdiction to consider the appeal as it related to a re-examination and continuation of the 1973 case. The Court dismissed the claim of New Zealand, stating that the original case was about atmospheric testing, not underground testing. However, the negative publicity against France generated by the case helped move France to end to its underground testing program and close its nuclear test site in French Polynesia.
Legality of the Use of Nuclear Weapons 1993 – the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons put to the Court
The World Health Organisation lodged a request to the ICJ in August 1993 for an advisory opinion on the question: “In view of the health and environmental effects, would the use of nuclear weapons by a State in war or other armed conflict be a breach of its obligations under international law including the WHO constitution?” A ‘World Court Project’ coalition of NGOs co-founded by the International Peace Bureau (IPB), the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), and the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA) led the initiative to move the WHO to request the opinion. The Court considered information and arguments submitted to it from the WHO and 35 States (24 supporting the case against nuclear weapons and 11 opposed). The submissions dealt with both jurisdiction and substance of the request
The Court decided on July 8, 1996 that ‘the request for an advisory opinion submitted by the WHO does not relate to a question which arises “within the scope of [the] activities” of that Organization in accordance with Article 96, paragraph 2, of the Charter,’ and thus the Court declined to consider the substance of the request. Never-the-less, the case submitted by the WHO was very useful in being able to get into the court information from the WHO and States on the health and environmental effects of nuclear weapons – that was then used successfully in the parallel case requested by the UN General Assembly.
Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons 1995 – affirmed general illegality of nuclear weapons and the obligation to abolish nuclear weapons
The United Nations General Assembly lodged a request to the ICJ in January 1995 for an advisory opinion on the question: ‘Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?’ An initial attempt to move the UN General Assembly to make the request in 1993 failed when pressure by the nuclear-armed States forced the withdrawal of the draft UN resolution. With the parallel request to the ICJ from the WHO uncertain to succeed on jurisdictional issues, the World Court Project coalition pushed the UNGA to revisit the question in 1994 and succeeded in moving the UNGA to adopt the UN resolution requesting the advisory opinion.
The Court considered information and arguments submitted by the UNGA and 28 States (20 supporting the case against nuclear weapons and 8 opposing it).
The Court decided on July 8, 1996 that the UNGA did have authority to request the opinion. The Court affirmed that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law;’ but could not determine either way whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would always be illegal ‘in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.’ The Court also affirmed that ‘There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in al1 its aspects under strict and effective international control.’
The 1996 opinion of the Court has been extremely valuable in clarifying the general illegality of nuclear weapons and the unconditional obligation to achieve their elimination. It thus continues to be a useful tool in nuclear disarmament actions, initiatives and campaigns.
Nuclear zero cases – challenge to the nuclear armed States to implement their nuclear disarmament obligations
On 24 April 2014, the Republic of the Marshall islands filed cases in the ICJ against the nine nuclear armed States (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States). The Court has commenced proceedings on the cases against the three countries that have lodged declarations accepting compulsory jurisdiction of the Court, i.e., India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom). The other six cases will only proceed if the defendant States accept jurisdiction for this specific case. The Marshall Islands has charged the nuclear armed States of non-compliance with and failing to implement their obligations to pursue and bring to a conclusion comprehensive nuclear disarmament. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and supporting NGOs have established Nuclear Zero, a global civil society campaign to support the cases. See also: UNFOLD ZERO Action: Support the Nuclear Zero World Court Case.
International Criminal Court (ICC)
In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly established a negotiating forum for an International Criminal Court (ICC), which would prosecute individuals with respect to crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The negotiations concluded with the adoption of the Rome Statute in 1998 and establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, Netherlands.
The definition of war crimes, over which the ICC has jurisdiction, includes the use of poison or poisonous weapons, and the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices. There was a proposal to include the use of nuclear weapons as a crime under the jurisdiction of the ICC, but this was rejected by nuclear armed States (with the exception of India) and other nuclear reliant States (NATO allies) and so was not included.
Following the adoption of the ICC Statute there have been a series of Assemblies of States Parties to the ICC. At the Eighth Assembly, Mexico proposed an amendment that would include the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons as a crime under the jurisdiction of the ICC. This proposed amendment has not yet been adopted.
In addition, the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention circulated by the UN Secretary General in 2007, proposes that the threat and use of nuclear weapons be included as a war crime under the jurisdiction of the ICC.
The Institute for Law Accountability and Peace has launched the Criminality of Nuclear Weapons Campaignwhich calls on individuals to support the view that any threat or use of nuclear weapons would constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity.
Human Rights Council
All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.
— Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 12 March 2007, Opening of the 4th Human Rights Council Session
It is evident that the designing, testing, manufacture, possession and deployment of nuclear weapons are among the greatest threats to the right to life which confront mankind today.
— UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment 14, Article 6, 1982
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them. The Council was established by the UN General Assembly in 2006 by resolution 60/251.and replaced the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
The Council is made up of 47 Member States which are elected by the UN General Assembly. It has the mandate to discuss all human rights issues and situations, including in reference to existing human rights instruments including the:
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- and other human rights instruments.
Many of these treaties also have established committees to monitor implementation of the treaty obligations.
The Council includes the:
- Universal Periodic Review mechanism which serves to assess the human rights situations in all United Nations Member States;
- Advisory Committee which serves as the Council’s “think tank” providing it with expertise and advice on thematic human rights issues;
- Complaint Procedure which allows individuals and organizations to bring human rights violations to the attention of the Council.
The Human Rights Council and Nuclear Weapons
The issue of nuclear weapons is not specified in the mandate of the Council or the human rights agreements on which the Council focuses its work. However, the issue has come up in the work of the Council and the treaty committees, in relation to the human rights that could be violated by nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons violate the right to life
In 1982, the Human Rights Committee, which was established to monitor implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted General Comment 6  in which it affirmed that the right to life, as enunciated in article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is the supreme right from which no derogation is permitted and is basic to all human rights. The Comment also affirmed that ‘the designing, testing, manufacture, possession and deployment of nuclear weapons are among the greatest threats to the right to life which confront mankind today’ and thus that ‘the production, testing, possession, deployment and use of nuclear weapons should be prohibited and recognized as crimes against humanity.’
Nuclear testing violates rights to health, dignity, traditional customs, liberty and security
A report he presented to the Human Rights Council in 2012 by Mr. Calin Georgescu, a UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and disposal of hazardous substances concluded that nuclear testing impacts severely on the human rights of local communities. The report focused on the Marshall Islands, which was subject to 67 nuclear tests conducted by the United States from 1946-1958. Populations of entire islands have been relocated, local food sources contaminated with radiation, and huge increases in radiation-induced health problems such as cancer, birth deformities and still births. The report concluded that:
The nuclear testing resulted in both immediate and continuing effects on the human rights of the Marshallese. Radiation from the testing resulted in fatalities and in acute and long-term health complications. The effects of radiation have been exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination, leading to the loss of livelihoods and lands. Moreover, many people continue to experience indefinite displacement.
The report also noted that actions to remedy the situation were insufficient and that perhaps further action by the UN General Assembly might be required.
Nuclear weapons and the draft UN Declaration on the Right to Peace
In 1984, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution entitled Declaration on the Right of Peoples to Peace, which expresses ‘the will and the aspirations of all peoples to eradicate war from the life of mankind and, above all, to avert a world-wide nuclear catastrophe,’ and ‘Emphasizes that ensuring the exercise of the right of peoples to peace demands that the policies of States be directed towards the elimination of the threat of war, particularly nuclear war, the renunciation of the use of force in international relations and the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means on the basis of the Charter of the United Nations.’
In 2012, the Human Rights Council established an open-ended intergovernmental working group to negotiate a treaty to codify and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Peace. The negotiations on the draft text are nearing completion, and the Declaration is expected to be adopted by the end of 2016.
The An initial preparatory report for the negotiations indicated that:
The failure of States to observe the obligations laid down in the relevant treaties in the field of disarmament, including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the possession, deployment and threat of use of weapons impedes respect for human rights. The continuing existence of nuclear weapons poses a permanent threat to world peace, as their use would have catastrophic consequences for all life on earth and humankind in general. Weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, do not only have an instant negative effect on peoples and individuals and the enjoyment and exercise of a variety of their human rights. The development, production, stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction or of indiscriminate effect may also imply unforeseeable, uncontrollable and long-term and cross-border effects on the environment threatening the livelihood of succeeding generations.
However, due to opposition by the nuclear-armed States and their allies, any references to nuclear weapons violating the right to peace have been omitted from the negotiated draft United Nations declaration on the right to peace.
There is still a possibility for civil society and anti-nuclear countries to comment on the draft declaration and to emphasise that nuclear weapons violate the right to peace and should thus be abolished. For more information contact. Civil Society Section, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. See also UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on the Right to Peace.