Emerging security issues, geopolitical tensions, rapid technological development and other challenges are reshaping the disarmament landscape. Unless we can fully engage with all the varied stakeholders necessary, finding sustainable disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control solutions will be impossible.
Izumi Nakamitsu, United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs

Developments and trends, 2021

The Office for Disarmament Affairs published the United Nations Disarmament Yearbook (vol. 45) online in an interactive format (, allowing diplomats, technical experts, journalists and other readers to effortlessly navigate the comprehensive overview of key developments and trends from the previous year in the area of multilateral disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control.

Only one Occasional Paper was produced in 2021: Advancing the Process to Negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty: The Role of States in the African, Asia-Pacific and Latin American and Caribbean Regions (No. 38). In the publication, the author explored the outcome of a project carried out by the European Union and the Office for Disarmament Affairs to promote participation by States in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean in the consultative process of the high-level expert preparatory group on a fissile material cut-off treaty.

In addition, the Office for Disarmament Affairs issued three ad hoc publications during the year.

Those publications included the second edition of the handbook entitled Effective Weapons and Ammunition Management in a Changing Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Context, which was developed for United Nations practitioners in the field of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. The Office published the new edition in both English and French. 

The Office also released Gender-sensitive Ammunition Management Processes: Considerations for National Authorities. Developed in partnership with Small Arms Survey, an independent research institute, the report contained reflections on incorporating gender considerations in the management of ammunition throughout its life cycle. Several practical suggestions for applying gender analysis to ammunition management were highlighted.

Third, the Office published, with support from the European Union and the Government of Ireland, the second edition of The Biological Weapons Convention: An Introduction. First published in 2017, the updated publication provided an overview of the Biological Weapons Convention, including the history of the negotiations and the current state of its implementation.

Meanwhile, the Office continued to use its websites as a key means of communication to engage with delegates, civil society stakeholders, staff members and the public at large. To improve the speed and reliability of its main website, the Office invested considerable resources in transferring all the existing content to the most efficient software so as to support the collection, management and sharing of information. The website is scheduled to be launched in 2022 on a more robust content management platform.

The International Day against Nuclear Tests on 29 August was marked through commemorations in Kazakhstan and a high-level plenary session of the General Assembly in New York. Secretary-General António Guterres, in a statement to the General Assembly, delivered on his behalf by the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs on 8 September, called the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty “the centrepiece of global efforts to eliminate nuclear tests once and for all”.

The International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons was observed on 28 September at a high-level plenary meeting convened by the President of the seventy-sixth session of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid (Maldives). In a statement to the meeting, the President of the General Assembly said that the COVID-19 pandemic had forced humanity to reflect on the kind of world it wanted. “Nuclear weapons are incompatible with the collective views of that new world”, he said.

Meanwhile, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs co-authored two joint opinion articles highlighting actions that Member States and the public could take to support key United Nations goals. To mark the Global Days of Action on Military Spending (12 April to 17 May), the High Representative and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), highlighted the adverse effects of the stark growth in military outlays since the end of the cold war. Jointly with Asako Okai, Assistant Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Director of its Crisis Bureau, the High Representative advocated for new approaches to tackling the negative impact of small arms and light weapons on countries’ social and economic development.

In anticipation of the tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), the Secretary-General warned in an opinion piece that the risk of nuclear-weapon use was higher than at any point since the cold war. Comparing the nuclear landscape to a tinderbox, he warned that one accident or miscalculation could set it alight. His op-ed was published by 18 media outlets in 15 countries. 

Separately, the General Assembly issued its second resolution on youth, disarmament and non-proliferation (76/45), encouraging Member States, the United Nations, relevant specialized agencies and regional and subregional organizations to continue to promote the meaningful and inclusive participation of young people in discussions in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation. Noting the prominent participation of youth in the intergovernmental process, the Assembly expressly requested the Secretary-General to promote the meaningful and inclusive participation and empowerment of youth in relation to disarmament and non-proliferation issues, including through token grants and awards supported by voluntary contributions.

The Office for Disarmament Affairs, for its part, continued to make significant headway in engaging with, educating and empowering young people through its youth outreach initiative, “#Youth4Disarmament”. Despite ongoing constraints from the global pandemic, the Office organized an array of activities that used art, writing and physical activity as expressive mediums to encourage young people of all interests, backgrounds and experience levels to participate in disarmament efforts.

Students pose for a group picture.

On 13 November 2021 in Seoul, 30 university students joined a student-focused hybrid webinar event in person to discuss disarmament and non-proliferation education.

The Office implemented an adjusted and abridged Programme of Fellowships on Disarmament for 2021, following an analysis that the COVID-19 environment was somewhat more permissive than in 2020, when the Programme had been suspended for the first time in its 40-year history. As per established practice, the 2021 Programme comprised a variety of theoretical activities and practical exercises, including lectures and round-table debates on current disarmament topics with senior diplomats and representatives of international, regional, bilateral and civil society organizations and academia; an ambassadorial-level panel discussion on nuclear disarmament; a simulated session on a draft resolution; and discussions of case studies on conventional weapons. However, most of the traditional field visits had to be cancelled or replaced by virtual or other similar alternatives. 

Owing to continuing restrictions on physical access at United Nations facilities resulting from the pandemic, in-person attendance at intergovernmental disarmament meetings remained largely off limits to civil society representatives for much of 2021. In that context, Member States adopted modalities by which relevant non-governmental actors could participate remotely in key processes, either by delivering remarks by video or submitting comments in writing. In October, for example, the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly participated in its second interactive virtual dialogue with civil society representatives. Meanwhile, non-governmental actors received new opportunities to request accreditation to attend meetings that had been postponed the previous year.

Increased interest in intergovernmental disarmament forums despite pandemic

Number of non-governmental organizations accredited to two postponed disarmament meetings
Bar graph showing a 56% increase in the number of NGOs accredited in 2021 compared with 2020.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of two key intergovernmental disarmament meetings in New York: the tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the seventh Biennial Meeting of States on the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons.

Health restrictions in force at United Nations Headquarters in 2021 substantially limited the ability of civil society organizations to attend meetings in person. Nevertheless, the number of civil society organizations accredited to the Review Conference and the Biennial Meeting of States jumped by 56 per cent in 2021, when those non-governmental groups were provided with new opportunities to register their interest in attending each meeting.

The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, an autonomous policy institute within the United Nations, implemented a range of activities on disarmament and security focused on generating knowledge and promoting dialogue and action. During the year, the Institute researched various topics, including nuclear risk reduction and verification, data issues and military autonomous systems, distributed ledger technology, space security, weapons and ammunition management, gender approaches to cybersecurity, and the establishment of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The Institute also engaged in and facilitated dialogue among disarmament stakeholders through 48 conferences, workshops and events, which drew over 9,000 participants.

Left: One of the five disarmament explainer videos produced by the Office for Disarmament Affairs to support educators who reported difficulties in identifying appropriate introductory educational materials on disarmament and non-proliferation. Designed to engage the interest of new and non-traditional audiences, on social media and in classrooms, the videos had been viewed over 15,000 times by the end of 2021.

Right: The first-place entry of the “What If – Spesterra” Youth Video Challenge, a worldwide contest in which young people showcased visions of a world without weapons of mass destruction, where conventional arms are strictly regulated and resources are directed towards tangible social and economic benefits for people and the planet.