The five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council are of course also the five nuclear weapon states that are recognized as such by the NPT. They have made few collective disarmament commitments, but there are some important ones and it is worth looking at the evolution of their collective disarmament language, up to and including yesterday’s (24 Sept 09) historic Security Council resolution.[i]

The foundational collective commitment is obviously in Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). All the P5 are now signatories, although they weren’t when the NPT first entered into force in 1970, and in it they say: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

For the P5 the operative word was “pursue,” and in the wake of their new commitment they embarked on the most intense arms race in human history, a nuclear arms race which led to their collective acquisition of some 70,000 nuclear weapons by the mid-1980s (up from just under 40,000 when the Treaty entered into force in 1970, and compared with the roughly 24,000 that remain today). Throughout, the P5 have argued they are in compliance with their Treaty obligations inasmuch as they are “pursuing” nuclear disarmament but that the conditions haven’t favored it. In fact, the P5 tended to argue that the Article VI reference to “general and complete” disarmament was really intended to mean that nuclear disarmament could be accomplished only in the context of general and complete disarmament.

Of course, other signatories to the NPT, the non-nuclear weapon states, argued that it was nuclear disarmament that would enhance global peace and security and thus both precede and contribute to the more distant goal of general and complete disarmament.

In 1992 the P5, through a formal Statement approved by the Security Council, went some way toward acknowledging that nuclear disarmament has a higher priority than general and complete disarmament, when the Council declared that “the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constitutes a threat to international peace and security,”[ii] assuming that “proliferation” can be understood as “vertical” proliferation as well.

In 1995, through the NPT Review Conference, the P5 strengthened its language further in acknowledging that a requirement for implementing Article VI is the “the determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon States of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goals of eliminating those weapons, and by all States of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The implication that nuclear disarmament must await general disarmament is not present in that formulation.

Then in 1996 the World Court, in its formal opinion on the Treaty, said that the obligation was not only to “pursue” negotiations, or presumably the “determined” pursuit of negotiations, toward nuclear disarmament, but that the obligation is to actually “conclude” negotiations and to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament.[iii]

In 2000 the P5, along with all other NPT signatories, agreed to 13 “practical steps” – these were described as “systematic and progressive efforts to implement article VI of the Treaty” – and the sixth of these steps was, and is, “an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament, to which all States parties are committed under article VI.”

This formulation obviously affirms the Court’s interpretation of Article VI as imposing an obligation on NWS to actually achieve or accomplish, not just pursue nuclear disarmament. It also separates nuclear disarmament from the general and complete disarmament effort. In other words, in 2000 the P5 said that they had an obligation to eliminate their nuclear arsenals and that they intended to fulfill that obligation.

In 2008 the P5 said through another Security Council statement that nuclear disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation are “necessary,” among other measures, “to strengthen international peace and security.”[iv]

That brings us to yesterday’s action. UN Security Council Resolution 1887, is a genuinely historic achievement for many reasons,[v] but it explicitly reverts to the language of pursuing, rather than accomplishing, nuclear disarmament. In the first preambular paragraph it says: “Resolving to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons….” In the main operative paragraph on disarmament, as approved by the P5, the Security Council “calls on the Parties to the NPT, pursuant to Article VI of the Treaty, to undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear arms reduction and disarmament….”

It is important to resist the temptation toward excessive negativity about what is a major and positive diplomatic move to light a fire under nuclear disarmament, but it is hard to avoid the thought that the language here is the definition of equivocation. First, it is a “call” rather than a commitment. Second, it is a call, not to accomplish disarmament, and technically not event to pursue it, but to “undertake” to pursue it – in other words, we are back at the 1970 NPT formulation without the benefit of the subsequent clarifications.

And by once again using the Article VI formulation that includes the reference to general and complete disarmament, the P5 invite a glass-half-empty interpretation that has them once again implying that nuclear disarmament must await conditions of global peace – rather than, as has been gradually clarified through the statements in 1992, 1995, 2000, and 2008 and through the World Court opinion, that nuclear disarmament is essential to and a means toward greater global peace and security.

One’s disappointment in the language is somewhat mitigated by subsequent paragraphs which reaffirm the 1992 and 2008 statements, but silence on the 1995 and 2000 commitments is telling.

None of this means that Resolution 1887 is not hugely important. It profiles nuclear disarmament as a global priority, it formally envisions a world without nuclear weapons, and it acknowledges at least implicitly that non-proliferation, that is, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, cannot be de-linked from disarmament. It is future action which will determine whether Resolution 1887 reflects a new and vigorous political will for disarmament among the P5, or whether the language of re-equivocation betrays a commitment to business as usual.

[email protected]


[i] The resolution was heavily focused on controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, measures that bear further discussion, but for now, a look at the more limited disarmament commitments.

[ii] Statement by the President of the Security Council, S/23500, 31 January 1992.

[iii] The Court’s Opinion is summarized by John Burroughs in, “The Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons:  A Guide to the Historic Opinion of The International Court Of Justice.” International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, Lit Verlag, 1997, Muenster. Available at

[iv] Statement by the President of the Security Council, S/PRST/2008/43, 19 November 2008.

[v] See previous posting here, Sept 15,

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.