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TZ Background Paper: The Role of the UN in Nuclear Disarmament by Dr Randy Rydell

Published on


13 June 2013

This UNA-UK Towards Zero background paper examines the role of the UN in meeting the challenges of nuclear disarmament, and the prospects for success. It was written by Dr Randy Rydell.

In 1955, Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld referred to nuclear disarmament as a “hardy perennial” of the UN. Fifty-eight years later, efforts at disarmament are still ongoing, and the issue continues to occupy a prominent position on the UN’s agenda. However, the perceived lack of success in achieving disarmament goals has led many to question the UN’s continuing relevance in the pursuit of those goals. Moreover, it has been argued that nuclear disarmament is dependent on the decisions of individual states, thus rendering the UN impotent on the issue. Dr Rydell uses Hammarskjöld’s statements and writings as the basis for his response to such criticisms.

Hammarskjöld believed that nuclear disarmament is dependent on two conditions being met: the development of a shared belief among states in the principle of disarmament, and the shared perception that disarmament is in each state’s national self-interest. If these conditions are not met, there will be insufficient political will to carry out disarmament. This focus on political will leads Dr Rydell to argue that the unsatisfactory outcomes produced by UN mechanisms are the result of the attitudes of states, rather than flaws in the mechanisms themselves. In order to overcome this problem, the UN must take the lead in fostering shared beliefs and appealing to member states’ self-interest.

Dr Rydell then addresses two factors that will shape the UN’s future role in disarmament: democracy and the rule of law. He suggests that democratisation enables greater civil society participation in decision-making, leading to the increase in lobbying required to produce an upsurge in political will for disarmament. With regard to the rule of law, Dr Rydell explores the idea that the process of disarmament will benefit from the increasing trend towards viewing nuclear weapons issues in terms of international humanitarian law.

Finally, Dr Rydell challenges the arguments of those who claim that disarmament is a utopian, unenforceable and dangerous endeavour.

About the author

Dr Randy Rydell is Senior Political Affairs Officer in the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

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