Nuclear Abolition News and Analysis

Reporting the underreported threat of nuclear weapens and efforts by those striving for a nuclear free world.
A project of The Non-Profit International Press Syndicate Group with IDN as flagship agency in partnership with Soka Gakkai International in consultative
status with ECOSOC.


Watch out for our new project website

About us

TOWARD A NUCLEAR FREE WORLD was first launched in 2009 with a view to raising and strengthening public awareness of the urgent need for non-proliferation and ushering in a world free of nuclear weapons. Read more

IDN Global News

The Guterres Disarmament Agenda: Continuity And Change

Viewpoint by Randy Rydell

Image source: UNODA

The writer, executive adviser to Mayors for Peace, was a senior political affairs officer in the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs from 1998 to 2014. The following are excerpts from the article posted on Arms Control Association‘s website on January 8, 2019. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Mayors for Peace. [2019-01-15]


NEW YORK (IDN-INPS) – The adage “where you stand depends on where you sit” aptly summarizes the state of the literature and policies on disarmament today, especially nuclear disarmament. Hence, the nuclear-weapon states and their allies defend their possession of such weapons as fully consistent with their international disarmament commitments.

Meanwhile, the non-nuclear-weapon states maintain that the “grand bargain” in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has not been implemented. In frustration, many in civil society, working with several governments, are promoting the newly concluded Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

One characteristic of this predicament is the entrenched nature of the positions and the lack of any sense that the protagonists are pursuing opportunities for dialogue in good faith. In terms of communication across these political lines, one finds two models: a “dialogue of the deaf” and a “dialogue of the like-minded.”

In such a climate, dialogue degenerates into parallel monologues guided by the spirit of a zero-sum game regulated by a bizarre form of rules that could have come from the Marquess of Queensberry, complete with rounds, a winner and loser, and boisterous audiences, minus a referee and prohibited punches. This has long been the case inside and outside the UN multilateral disarmament machinery.

Rejecting this business-as-usual approach, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched his disarmament agenda with an address at the University of Geneva on May 24, 2018. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) simultaneously released a 73-page non-paper that elaborated this new agenda,Vand in October, it issued the agenda’s implementation plan.

This article will describe the initiative’s key themes and proposals and identify those features that represent continuity or change relative to proposals advanced by his predecessors. It will also discuss obstacles to implementation and opportunities for progress. Finally, it will reflect on the broader role of the United Nations, its Secretariat, and its secretary-general in advancing global disarmament objectives.


That a UN secretary-general would speak out on disarmament should hardly evoke surprise. After all, each leader since 1946 has addressed the issue as a UN priority, especially nuclear disarmament. Dag Hammarskjöld referred to nuclear disarmament in 1955 as the UN’s “hardy perennial,” while U Thant stressed the social and economic costs of the Cold War. Kurt Waldheim elaborated on disarmament at length in his annual reports on the work of the UN. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar presided over the establishment in the Secretariat of the Department for Disarmament Affairs. Boutros Boutros-Ghali approached disarmament as part of a larger process of peace building. Kofi Annan often addressed disarmament in his speeches, emphasizing the norm-setting role of the UN and its contributions in strengthening the multilateral principles of disarmament.

Guterres’ immediate predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, was also a prominent advocate for disarmament. He was the first incumbent secretary-general to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, and the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He created the post of high representative in the new Office for Disarmament Affairs, and he was the first secretary-general to offer his own comprehensive disarmament proposal, which addressed nuclear weapons, conventional arms, missiles, space weapons, and military spending.4

All of these secretaries-general recognized that real progress, especially in nuclear disarmament, depended on actions by member states. They understood well that the lack of progress was a reflection of the interests and priorities of states, not any failure on the part of the UN. They knew the severe limitations facing their initiatives absent a good faith effort by states to fulfil their disarmament commitments.

Overall, their combined intention was less to cause disarmament than to cultivate a political environment conducive to progress on a global level. They sought to raise questions, gather data, and identify specific actions that would advance disarmament goals, elevate priorities, rally support among concerned member states and civil society groups, and educate the public about how disarmament advances the principles and goals of the UN and its charter.

New Elements

Although consistent with the views of his predecessors, the Guterres agenda contains some new elements that help to distinguish it from their proposals.

Guterres, who became secretary-general in January 2017, had been known for his competent service as Portugal’s prime minister and for his work in humanitarian affairs, having served as the UN high commissioner for refugees. As a candidate for secretary-general, he did not identify disarmament as his top priority, a stance that might not be helpful in gaining the support of the permanent members of the Security Council, which are the five NPT-recognized nuclear powers (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Yet in announcing a detailed, comprehensive disarmament agenda a year later, he clearly identified this set of issues as a personal priority and a hallmark of his incumbency.

His proposal coincides with a growing interest in multilateral arenas in the humanitarian approach to disarmament. This approach is prominent in the deliberations of the UN General Assembly and in meetings of the NPT parties. The General Assembly’s adoption of the nuclear weapons prohibition treaty in 2017 and the subsequent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize later that year to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons were direct reflections of that approach.

Izumi Nakamitsu, the current UN high representative for disarmament affairs and the secretary-general’s most senior adviser in the Secretariat on disarmament matters, also comes from a background in humanitarian affairs, most notably on issues relating to refugees and development. In the UN Secretariat, the Guterres/Nakamitsu team no doubt will have the strong support from governments and civil society groups advancing the humanitarian approach to disarmament. This, in turn, will help in gaining recognition from elsewhere in the Secretariat of the importance of disarmament to the advancement of virtually all formal UN goals as set forth in the UN Charter.

Thus, in contrast to his predecessors, Guterres has placed himself at the vanguard of a significant political movement in support of concrete progress on disarmament matters. He will undoubtedly face obstacles in convincing other parts of the UN family of the importance of disarmament in advancing their own issues—obstacles that former High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane collectively called the “disarmament taboo”—but his humanitarian credentials and his explicit linkage of disarmament to development, peace-building, and other UN mandates will likely help in overcoming many of these obstacles. The greatest barriers, however, remain those that have faced his predecessors: the unwillingness or inability of the nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their disarmament commitments and the broader, misguided assumption that national security is a direct function of the weapons a state possesses.

Guterres framed his agenda to advance three priorities, each embodying a humanitarian theme: “disarmament to save humanity,” focused on weapons of mass destruction; “disarmament to save lives,” dealing with conventional arms control; and “disarmament for future generations,” examining challenges posed by new technologies. His agenda combines many overarching themes.

[Read complete article here >] [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 January 2019]

Image source: UNODA

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –



Report & Newsletter

Toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons 2022

Scroll to Top