Historical Development of Disarmament and Arms Control


Historical Development of Disarmament and Arms Control


Disarmament and arms control are not new phenomena. Ever since ancient times, efforts have been made to promote disarmament, for example when victors after a war disarmed their defeated opponents to prevent them from attacking again.

Disarmament and arms control efforts in the form of international agreements have been implemented mainly over the past 100 years or so. Contracting treaties and conventions on disarmament and arms control gained momentum after the Second World War, because of the development and use of the atomic bomb in 1945, and after the end of the Cold War in 1991, which created the conditions for progress in developing disarmament and arms control law. The large number of agreements that have been concluded during the past fifty years can also be attributed to the desire to implement the United Nations Charter’s objectives and intentions for maintaining international peace and security, as stated in the introduction and Article 1 of the UN Charter on the purposes of the United Nations.

During the first decade after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the public’s interest and commitment to disarmament efforts – especially nuclear weapons disarmament – declined significantly. The confrontation between the US and USSR and the threat of using nuclear weapons during the Cold War had ceased and there was no longer any imminent danger of a devastating nuclear war between the two former rival superpowers. During this time, the number of operational nuclear weapons was reduced significantly – from about 65,000 nuclear weapons in 1986 to 25,000 in the late 1990s. After the end of the Cold War, international security policy attention was increasingly targeting peacemaking and peacekeeping operations in regional ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and in Africa.

Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, and the ensuing “war on terror,” the question of how to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly of nuclear weapons, has received renewed interest in international politics. The efforts by North Korea and Iran to acquire the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons have increased concerns about the further spread of nuclear weapons.


The first international regulation (i.e., limitation) of certain types of conventional weapons is contained in the Saint Petersburg Declaration, adopted in 1868. The Declaration prohibited the use of projectiles under 400 grams that either explode or are loaded with flammable substances and codified the customary principle, still valid today, that prohibits the use of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering.

The first real multilateral arms control agreements were concluded in the form of joint declarations adopted at the First International Peace Conference in The Hague in 1899. The declarations included prohibitions on projectiles with asphyxiating or toxic gases and the so-called dumdum bullets (bullets that are easily flattened, thus expanding their size, and effect, on impact). The Hague Peace Conference was called on the initiative of Russia to ensure peace by, among other things, limiting the overly large weapons stocks, which the then-great powers in Europe – especially Germany – were in the process of building up. It was not possible during the peace conference to adopt proposals for general disarmament measures or prohibitions of certain other types of weapons. This was due to a general resistance against inspections and monitoring compliance with the proposed provisions, which – according to many states participating in the conference – would have implied a violation of the fundamental principle of national sovereignty and inviolability.

At the second Peace Conference in The Hague in 1907, a number of conventions on the law of war were adopted. One of these was the Hague Convention IV of 18 October 1907: respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, i.e., rules for warfare on land. According to the Convention’s Article 22, the right of belligerents to adopt the means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited. Article 23 prohibits the use of poison or poisoned weapons, and the use of arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.

Protocol I of 18 June 1977 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 reiterates, reaffirms, and expands the prohibitions in the War on Land Regulations relative to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts. The basic rules on the methods and means of warfare are laid down in Article 35, which states that the right of parties to an armed conflict to choose the methods and means of warfare is not unlimited. The Article also prohibits the use of weapons, projectiles, and the material and methods of warfare that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. It is, however, the understanding of the nuclear powers that the rules of warfare established by Protocol I do not regulate or prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.1 Furthermore, Article 35 contains a prohibition on the use of methods or means of warfare that are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment. This prohibition is applicable to nuclear weapons.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 put a temporary stop to further efforts to promote disarmament and arms control, and a third Hague Peace Conference was planned, but was never convened.

Although no major disarmament results were achieved at The Hague Conferences, they influenced later efforts to promote both international humanitarian law and disarmament and arms control. The Conferences set in motion a trend for establishing further rules of international law for the conduct of war, especially for prohibitions and restrictions on the use of certain types of conventional weapons.


The League of Nations was an organization of states established in 1919 on the initiative of US president Woodrow Wilson as part of the peace settlement after the First World War. The organization’s main objective was to prevent war, eliminate the causes of conflicts, provide opportunities for the peaceful settlement of international disputes, and promote disarmament.