In depth

Central articles

The disarmament and arms control agenda

Rafael Grasa
Lecturer in International Relations at the UAB and President of the ICIP
Rafael Grasa

Rafael Grasa

Disarmament has been on the recent international agenda since the development of the idea of collective security and attempts to prohibit war, specific weapons and behaviour during conflict by legally binding agreements. It is often thought that the abolition of weapons, either completely or those of a particular type, would prevent arms races and the security dilemma that causes them. The United Nations Organization is based on this idea, and set an objective that is still valid today: general and complete disarmament. However, the nuclear arms race during the cold war led to the appearance of another concept, which was more pragmatic and limited in scope - arms control.

Both items are currently on the agenda, despite the major changes in the situation as a result of new types of armed conflicts (basically internal) and the appearance of new types of violence linked to small arms in particular. Indeed, one of the changes is that there is no automatic link of causality between the presence of weapons - transferred through legal channels - and violent deaths. For example, the transfer of weapons from Latin America and the Caribbean only accounts for 6% of the total figure, while the region accounts for 42% of the world's homicides caused by firearms. Let us take a look in more detail.

Let us start with how words are used. The limited general definition of disarmament usually involves putting an end to a country's military capacity, while partial disarmament may entail the disposal of some types or categories of weapons, or a general reduction in their numbers. Disarmament often involves prohibiting the possession or production of weapons. Arms control, which entails seeking agreements so that states manage their arms co-operatively, does not necessarily entail eliminating and/or prohibiting any category of weapon.

During the Cold War, there were more arms control agreements than disarmament agreements. Since the end of the Cold War, both disarmament and arms control have once again been on the agenda, especially in terms of small arms. This can be seen in the year that now coming to a close, especially in the nuclear field. The efforts being made in this area are worthwhile, as apart from horizontal proliferation (i.e. new nuclear powers), vertical proliferation in the arsenals of the countries possessing nuclear weapons remains a key area: there are still 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world. However, the Obama "boost", involving a proposal with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons that is limited in terms of quantity and quality, and the hopes placed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference to be held in May 2010 make next year one of opportunity and hope.

However, there are two items that merit concern.

The first is the lack of effectiveness of the Conference on Disarmament, the only forum for multilateral disarmament negotiations used by the international community since 1979. Its agenda covers almost all areas of disarmament and arms control. Its annual conference ends with plenty of resolutions, but to date, with little content. The 2009 session saw some improvement, as the United States changed its vote on some points and a substantial agenda was approved for the first time in 12 years (CD/1864), but what is uncertain, i.e. is not automatic, is whether the agenda will continue to be driven forward in 2010. The Conference needs to be reformed or perhaps replaced.

The second is even more important. To put it bluntly, traditional arms control models do not work well for small arms. The traditional models were based on certain assumptions: that most arms production is controlled and/or authorised by governments; that most arms transfers are the result of decisions made by governments; and that the states receiving weapons do not produce or transfer significant amounts of arms. These assumptions are to a large extent true for weapons of mass destruction and "large" conventional weapons, but are not true for small arms. These weapons, which cause the most deaths, have two significant distinguishing features. First, more clients acquire them: government bodies (military and police forces) and non-governmental organisations (private security, traffickers, and individuals). In some cases, these clients can increase the risk of violence and instability. Second - and crucially - most of the trade and transfers of these weapons does not depend on the primary cycle (which is based on production), but instead on secondary transaction cycles involving accumulated stocks, without any new production taking place. This market, which is sometimes legal and often illegal, encourages purchases by non-governmental players og arms which are legal in theory. However, it leads to a lack of transparency that makes distinguishing between legal and illegal transfers difficult. As result, neither states nor governments can control everything in these circumstances. This means that measures for transparency are essential and in the future, so is a workable treaty on the trade and transfer of weapons.

In simple terms, both academics and the movement are of the same opinion: disarmament and arms control are vital for the future, but not only in the nuclear sphere.