The continued fraying of the disarmament and non-proliferation regime is worrying. It is both a cause and consequence of the current geopolitical tensions and conflict. Enduring paralysis in the multilateral disarmament machinery cannot continue if we are to build a safer and more secure world.

Developments and trends, 2022

The year saw mixed levels of progress across the various components of the multilateral disarmament machinery. The United Nations Disarmament Commission resumed substantive work and submitted its first substantive report to the General Assembly since 2018. In the seventy-seventh session of the General Assembly's First Committee, States demonstrated their engagement on disarmament-related issues through record-high numbers of interventions, resolutions and decisions. The Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters convened for two sessions in 2022, tackling a new two-year programme of work on the pressing matter of global military spending. Meanwhile, the Conference on Disarmament generated further frustration and discontent as it continued to be deadlocked. It could not even agree to its traditional annual report, instead adopting a one-page report containing only meeting dates for 2023. Furthermore, the General Assembly resolution entitled “Report of the Conference on Disarmament” was adopted by a vote for the first time.

Eased constraints from the COVID-19 pandemic allowed for a resumption of normal, in-person working methods across the disarmament machinery. The First Committee of the General Assembly returned fully to its pre-COVID-19 modes of work, convening for 32 in-person meetings. Informal consultations on draft resolutions and decisions also returned to an in-person format, a development widely welcomed by delegations. Similarly, the Disarmament Commission held its three weeks of substantive deliberations in person, with both working groups holding 10 meetings each. The Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters incorporated a flexible approach in carrying out its substantive meetings for 2022. Although lingering COVID-19 concerns caused the Board’s first meeting in February to be held in an adjusted, virtual format, its second meeting in June took place in person at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The Conference on Disarmament resumed in-person meetings at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, but it also took advantage of virtual conferencing technologies to enable the participation of experts and senior dignitaries during its high-level segment.

Figure 7

Number of disarmament-related resolutions mentioning humanitarian principles, 2000–2022
bar graph showing the number of disarmament-related resolutions mentioning humanitarian principles over the years

Preventing unnecessary suffering in armed conflict has been a goal of international law for nearly two centuries. In recent decades, many countries have been pushing to rein in specific means and methods of warfare based on their indiscriminate or disproportionate effects — particularly on civilians. Focusing their efforts on the humanitarian impact of certain weapons, those States progressively achieved the entry into force of treaties against anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions and nuclear weapons.

During that same period, countries began referring to humanitarian principles in a growing number of General Assembly resolutions related to disarmament. Such references may reflect a growing understanding of “humanitarian disarmament” as an effective complement to approaches that pursue disarmament through measures such as strengthening confidence, trust and stability among States.

Seventy-seventh General Assembly votes on resolutions and decisions

On 7 December, the seventy-seventh General Assembly votes on resolutions and decisions endorsed by the First Committee. (Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

The Conference on Disarmament saw a promising start to its 2022 session with the establishment of subsidiary bodies on its core agenda items. However, discussions within the subsidiary bodies and the negotiation of their reports were negatively impacted by flaring geopolitical tensions, particularly the situation in Ukraine, resulting in an inability to make any substantive progress. In his statement to the seventy-seventh session of the First Committee in October, the President of the Conference, Emilio Rafael Izquierdo Miño (Ecuador), regretted that the body’s final report did not reflect its work throughout the year. Moreover, he suggested that States critically reflect on the Conference’s work and future. Recalling that almost all delegations had repeated their worry and frustration about the body’s paralysis over more than two decades, he called on States to take urgent action.

The 2022 session of the Disarmament Commission was able to submit a substantive report (A/77/42) to the seventy-seventh session of the General Assembly following a three-year hiatus. States universally welcomed the resumption of the Commission’s work, underscoring its critical importance as the main deliberative component of the disarmament machinery. The Commission decided that 2022 would be the second year of its three-year cycle, picking up where it left off in 2018 and resuming consideration in two working groups on the substantive agenda items previously agreed: nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation; and transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities.[1] Despite acrimonious exchanges over the conflict in Ukraine during the general debate, both Working Groups were able to hold in-depth discussions. Several delegations underscored that the substantive discussions in the Commission would facilitate input for the tenth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Open-ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviours. States also expressed hope that the 2022 discussions would help forge a pathway to a successful outcome at the 2023 session, which would mark an end to the three-year cycle.

Deep divisions and combative exchanges punctuated the seventy-seventh session of the First Committee as it considered a record-setting 75 draft resolutions and decisions, adopting 74[2] and rejecting one. The war in Ukraine permeated all aspects of the Committee’s work, from confrontational exchanges to divisive votes. The Russian Federation used the right of reply to defend its actions, and Western States, including the European Union and the United States, criticized the Russian Federation for directly contributing to the erosion of the disarmament and non-proliferation regime and raising nuclear threats. Despite the harsh tenor of the exchanges, engagement in the Committee was extremely high; the general debate saw statements by 148 delegations, while the thematic discussions included 365 interventions. While participation by women delegates in the Committee continued to increase, it remained well below parity, with only 28 per cent of interventions made by women.

At the request of the Secretary-General, the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters began a two-year programme of work on the topic of global military spending. The Board considered the development of proposals to facilitate new and transformative thinking to reduce arms expenditures in the immediate, medium and long term. At its sessions in February and June, the Board discussed topics that included the historic role of the United Nations in reducing military spending and promoting transparency; the political, economic and social drivers that had pushed military spending upwards in the last two decades; and the implications at global, regional and national levels, including socioeconomic consequences (A/76/183). The Board will present recommendations to the Secretary-General following its eightieth session in June 2023.

[1] “Recommendations for achieving the objective of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons”; “Preparation of recommendations to promote the practical implementation of transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities with the goal of preventing an arms race in outer space, in accordance with the recommendations contained in the report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-building Measures in Outer Space Activities”.

[2] The First Committee adopted 66 resolutions and 8 decisions.