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75 Years On The First UN General Assembly Resolution

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The author is Ambassador, President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

NEW YORK (IDN) – Seventy-five years ago, in January 1946, the United Nations General Assembly met for the first time after the signature of the Charter. Its first resolution was adopted on the 24th of that month. The developments mentioned and commented below come to mind as we recall the outcome of that inaugural session of the Assembly.

The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been carried out roughly five months earlier, on August 6 and 9 of the previous year and the political impact of the bombings was still very strong. The United States was the only country possessing atomic capabilities at the time, which remained the case until 1949 when the Soviet Union successfully tested its first nuclear explosive device.[1] The unravelling of the uneasy wartime alliance between the USA and the USSR had begun immediately after the surrender of Nazi Germany, giving way to the period known as the Cold War.

The awesome destructive power of the newly invented weapon was undoubtedly on top of mind for the representatives of the 51 states that then made up the membership of the fledgeling world organization – mainly Western and Eastern European plus most Latin American countries.

The first General Assembly resolution established a Commission “to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy”.[2] This is an interesting formulation, since “atomic energy” as such had in fact been discovered much earlier. The real issue, of course, was how to deal with the problems raised by the uses of that power, particularly its weaponization.

Accordingly, the resolution called for the Commission to present proposals for that end, including the “elimination of atomic weapons from national armaments”.[3] That remains the clearest general agreement ever reached at the UN for action on the need for doing away with the cruellest and indiscriminate means of mass destruction.

The Commission met several times and presented its reports to the Security Council. Due to intense rivalry, animosity and mistrust between the United States and the Soviet Union no substantive results were achieved. On  November 4, 1948, the General Assembly passed a resolution stating that it had examined the first, second and third reports and expressed its deep concern at the impasse which had been reached.[4]  

Debates included a plan presented in June 1946 by the United States, according to which that country would destroy its atomic arsenal on the condition that controls on atomic development would not be subject to veto at the Security Council. Predictably, there was no agreement on that plan. The Commission became inactive since 1947 and was officially disbanded in 1952.[5]

Despite the failure to translate its recommendations into concrete results, UNGA Resolution 1 remains unique in its conception and objectives. To date, the United Nations has been unable to adopt any consensus decision establishing clear mandates for effective nuclear disarmament.

“Partial” measures

In view of the persistent inability to deal decisively with the elimination of nuclear armaments, attention gradually shifted to so-called “partial measures”, that is, accessory instruments on specific issues that could increase security and/or facilitate the eventual achievement of real disarmament treaties.

Over the years, several such agreements have been successfully negotiated both multilaterally and bilaterally, but so far all have failed to generate the necessary political will to take up and conclude concrete disarmament measures. One major shortcoming is that those partial agreements have never been conceived as a logical sequence organically linked to the objective of nuclear disarmament.

A measure envisaged in the first couple of decades at the UN was the negotiation of a treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the early 1950’s several countries had already started to develop national nuclear industries and some seemed on the verge of obtaining independent military atomic capabilities.

Following cogent urgings from different quarters, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 2028 (XX)[6] calling on the Eighteen-nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC)[7] to give “urgent consideration” to the question of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and to reconvene with a view to negotiating a treaty to prevent it. The resolution also set forth the principles on which a future non-proliferation treaty should be based. One of such principles was that the treaty should be “a step toward the achievement” of nuclear disarmament. 

During his campaign for the presidency of the United States, John F. Kennedy had warned that within a few years “15 or 20 countries” might acquire their own nuclear arsenals. A commission established by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson[8] reported in 1965 that it was in the interest of the United States to curb the further spread of nuclear weapons and that therefore it should make “substantial and intense efforts” in that direction, particularly through the negotiation of formal multilateral agreements, application of influence on individual nations[9] and example by its own policies and actions.

That report also acknowledged the importance of the participation of the USSR in the efforts to halt proliferation and recognized that “lessened emphasis by the United States and the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons and agreements on broader arms control measures” were important elements to prevent nuclear proliferation. The Report also recommended the undertaking of initiatives to obtain Soviet support and cooperation for specific actions.[10] There is no mention to nuclear disarmament in the report of that Commission.

Given their mutual interest in limiting as much as possible the number of nuclear-capable states through a legally binding international instrument, the USSR and the US steered the debates on non-proliferation in 1965 and 1996 at the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) as co-chairs of that organ.

In March 1968 they presented a joint draft treaty which did not obtain consensus. Nevertheless, the two co-Chairs decided to send it “on behalf of the Committee”[11] to the General Assembly, which endorsed the draft.[12] In 1970 the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force and gradually became the most adhered-to multilateral instrument to contain the spread of nuclear arms to nations that did not yet possess them.[13]

Several other important multilateral and regional non-proliferation instruments were successfully negotiated within and outside the United Nations around that time and beyond, among which the Antarctic Treaty (1961), the Outer Space Treaty (1967), five treaties prohibiting nuclear weapons in as many regions of the world[14] and the Comprehensive Test-ban Treaty (1996)[15]. The latter, known by the acronym CTBT has yet to enter into force but created a powerful international norm against tests of nuclear explosives.

Since the inception of the United Nations 75 years ago over two dozen other treaties and conventions on major weapons have been negotiated and adopted. Only two of those instruments, however – the Conventions on bacteriological (biological) and on chemical weapons – prohibit all their parties to manufacture and stockpile such arms and oblige them to destroy their arsenals.[16]

Over the decades the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) also negotiated between themselves a number of bilateral treaties, agreements and arrangements on limitations of their nuclear forces and related matters.[17] Some of the other nuclear-weapon states adopted unilateral curbs on their own atomic forces and programs.

Most of the multilateral and regional instruments named above, however, deal with the non-introduction of nuclear weapons where they do not yet exist. Those concluded bilaterally between nuclear states address mainly procedures to enhance security vis-à-vis each other and to increase mutual confidence. None contain legally binding provisions or envisage commitments for the permanent elimination of such weapons.

Episodes of a few alleged attempts to circumvent the prohibitions contained in the NPT have been resolved by diplomatic means and political pressure. So far, no non-nuclear party to that Treaty has obtained nuclear capabilities[18], which attests to the efficacy and authority of that instrument.

A disheartening reality

Sadly, however, the original purposes and objectives of Resolution 1 of the General Assembly, particularly “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons” seem to have faded away. Over the years, the push for concrete nuclear disarmament measures has been thwarted in multilateral debates. Bilateral agreements on arms limitations have been abandoned or contested and political commitments have been disregarded. Mainstream media and governmental publications in nuclear-weapon states and their allies routinely extol the virtues of nuclear arms in protecting their own security and frequently argue that their weapons are responsible for keeping the peace since the end of World War II.[19]

Public opinion seems largely unaware of the inherent danger represented by the existence of nuclear weapons, while the current nuclear states behave as if they are somehow entitled to their indefinite possession and use as they see fit. All nine such states are currently engaged in an effort to increase the destructive power of their nuclear arsenals and/or to incorporate new technological improvements.

The continuous development of new and more sophisticated means of warfare – such as the aggressive use of cyber technologies and systems of delivery several times faster than the speed of sound – has dramatically shortened the time available for response and generated a search for new ways to counter perceived threats, in a never-ending spiral. The introduction of so-called “low yield” nuclear weapons – the smallest having a destructive power roughly equivalent to one-half the Hiroshima bomb – for battlefield use shows the magnitude of the risks involved.

The recurrence of hostile attitudes between rival nuclear weapon states raises the fearsome prospect of escalation into an unintended nuclear war by accident or sheer incompetence, whereas the risk of nuclear aggression by design should never be underestimated.[20]

Fortunately, the conscience of the world is not anaesthetized by the self-serving arguments presented by nuclear-weapon states to justify the maintenance and continuous development of their nuclear arsenals and other means to wage war. As stressed above, the great powers are engaged in a renewed global competition for the achievement of military/strategic supremacy.

At the same time, several others (in close cooperation with non-governmental organizations, including within the nuclear powers themselves) are calling for all nations not only to renounce nuclear weapons and support sensible measures aimed at their elimination such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)[21] but also to engage seriously and in good faith in the ongoing search for workable, common-sense ways to deal once and for all with the existential risks posed by such weapons.

Then and now

There are marked differences but also interesting similarities between what the world looked like in January 1946 and today, 75 years later. At that time, the international community was recovering from the shock of the advent and use of nuclear weapons as well as from the widespread destruction, death and extreme suffering imposed by World War II on an estimated 3% of the world population, among combatants and civilians.[22]

Fortunately, no similar man-made catastrophe has occurred since but in our days the world is struggling to find effective ways to overcome the effects of an unprecedented pandemic that struck societies everywhere, so far killing nearly two million and infecting some 100 million people worldwide, besides wiping out for many more the economic gains of previous decades.

In 1946, General Assembly Resolution no. 1 reflected overall agreement on the pressing need to prevent a repetition of the catastrophic use of atomic weapons. Today, concern with that possibility is conspicuously absent from the priorities of leaders. Moreover, the basic concepts and the cooperative institutional framework that served the world well during the past few decades have been the target of doubt and discredit, constraining their ability to ensure peace, promote prosperity and reduce inequalities.

A surge of narrow-minded nationalism and of a misguided understanding of the meaning of individual liberties and of national sovereignty has shaken the very foundations of past accomplishments. Democratic values embraced and revered by a large section of the international community since the Age of Enlightenment have been questioned by deplorable extremist actions.

In the aftermath of World War II reconstruction was achieved despite the division of the world in two antagonistic camps. Trust and cooperation were reinforced with bold recovery programs and joint efforts by governments and societies. Broad-minded leaders in countries most involved in the 1939-45 conflict ensured a prompt cooperative response that brought humanitarian relief and economic and social recovery for a large section of those more gravely affected.

The establishment of some important multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and its specialized agencies, the International Court of Justice and agreements in the field of currency stabilization and international finance as well as for the promotion of peaceful uses of atomic energy were crucial for the success of those efforts.

Today, the challenge is to cope with the global disruption brought about by COVID-19 pandemic by means of prompt and effective national and multilateral measures and cooperation. The urgency of checking the further spread of the disease by encouraging prophylaxis, vaccination, public sanitation and care, as well as by supporting action to reduce its impact on social and economic life, particularly in less developed regions of the world, have all become present-day imperatives.

Governments are primarily responsible for these urgent tasks, but the supporting role of international institutions should not be played down. Just as mankind’s interests will clearly best be served by increased cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, so will they by renewed multilateral efforts to reduce the danger posed by the continuing existence of nuclear weapons

Fortunately, some indications herald more constructive attitudes and better prospects for the immediate future with calls from responsible voices for more cooperation and solidarity among nations and the abandonment of isolationist attitudes and self-serving practices.

The challenges of the post-pandemic world will require not only political, social and economic instruments to ward off the evils of isolationism, obscurantism and aggressive postures but also the definition of new models for development and cooperation that can help in building a socially and environmentally sustainable world, free of sectarian polarization and deleterious negativism.

Possible changes in security policies and announced moves such as a return to the Paris Climate Agreement, the revisiting of the JCPOA[23] and the reinforcement of a culture of peace and multilateralism based on the United Nations, together with bold initiatives that seek the prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons are welcome harbingers of the dawning of a new era for humankind.

In 1946 Resolution number 1 of the General Assembly embodied the promise of a world free of nuclear weapons. Today humankind greets the year 2021 with anxiety but also with renewed hope. Governments and civil society must seize this opportunity to work hand in hand to halt and reverse the dangerous trends of the current times and bring the benefits of the extraordinary advancements in science and technology to all human beings everywhere. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 January 2021]

Photo: Methodist Central Hall, London, the location of the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946. Source: Wikimedia Comp

IDN is flagship agency of the non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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[1] The United Kingdom obtained its own nuclear weapon in 1952, France in 1960, and the Peoples Republic of China in 1964.

[2] A/RES/1 (I). 47 of those 51 states voted affirmatively and four did not participate. The vote was not recorded.

[3] The Commission was tasked with making specific proposals for extending between all nations the exchange of basic scientific information  for peaceful ends; for control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes; for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction; and for effective safeguards by way of inspection and other means to protect complying states against the hazards of violations and evasions.  

[4] A/RES/191 (III).

[5] A/RES/592 (VI).

[6] A/6097 and Corr.1.

[7] The ENDC was formed as the result of a 1962 agreement reached within the United Nations to add to the already existing Ten-nation Disarmament Committee (TNDC) eight countries not belonging to either NATO or the Warsaw Pact – Brazil, Burma (later renamed Myanmar), Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Nigeria and Sweden. The members of the TNDC were five countries from each of the two existing military groups. The ENDC was replaced in 1979 as the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and subsequently enlarged. It now has 65 members and 38 observers.

[8] Gilpatric Report,

[9]  Germany, France, India, Japan, Israel, the United Arab Republic and Sweden are specifically named in the Gilpatric Report.

[10]  The Report proposed the negotiation of a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, a fissile material “cutoff” agreement and a verifiable freeze of new deployments of strategic delivery vehicles, as well as 30% reductions in deployed force levels. One interesting recommendation was that “in order to minimize the incentives for others to acquire nuclear weapons” the United States should “avoid giving an exaggerated impression” of the importance and utility of such weapons.

[11] A/7072, March 19 1968.

[12] The result of the vote on the NPT was 94 for, 4 against and 24 abstentions.

[13] All member States of the United Nations are parties to the NPT, with the exception for India, Israel, Pakistan and the DPRK. All four eventually obtained nuclear weapons.

[14] The pioneer Treaty on The Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America (1967) predated the NPT and was followed several years later by similar instruments prohibiting nuclear weapons in the South Pacific (1986), in Southwest Asia (1997), in Africa (2009) and in Central Asia (2009). Mongolia was recognized as free of nuclear weapons in 1998. These instruments cover 114 countries, their territorial waters and airspace.   

[15] Although it is not yet into force the CTBT established an important international norm against nuclear test explosions in all environments.   

[16] According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) over 98% of world stocks of chemical weapons have been destroyed.

[17] Over the decades many nuclear weapons have been retired, disabled or dismantled. Total existing nuclear weapons in the world, estimated at 70.000 at the height of the Cold War have been reduced to about 14.000 through some of such agreements. The majority of the latter remains active or mothballed.  

[18] The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) declared its withdrawal from the NPT in 1992 and later detonated its first nuclear explosive device.

[19] Mentions to nuclear disarmament are routinely qualified or suppressed in official multilateral documents and records. Government agencies in countries that used to have the word “disarmament” in their denomination were reorganized and renamed to reflect only their “non-proliferation” mission. By the same token, the word “disarmament” is absent from the World Summit Outcome document adopted on September 16 2005 at the United Nations (A/60/1).  

[20] General Lee Butler, former commander of U.S nuclear forces (1991-1994) stated in a 2015 interview:  “We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention – probably the latter in greatest proportion.” Interview to Robert Kazel, May 27 2015,

[21] A new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons leading to their elimination (TPNW) was adopted by 122 states at the United Nations in 2017. So far, it has been signed by 86 nations and ratified by 51. It enters into force on January 22 2021.

[22] Sources available agree that the numbers are only estimates. Data for the Soviet Union and China are particularly unreliable.

[23] Doubts about the Iranian nuclear program prompted the conclusion in 2015 of a six-party agreement known as JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Withdrawal by one of its parties has compromised the efficacy of that agreement.  

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