A Path to Global Disarmament

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 53
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

There was a time in our history when slavery was considered by most people to be a normal, justifiable institution; those calling for the abolition of the slave trade were considered a fringe element. After all, slavery formed the basis of an entrenched economic system and was supported by much of the day’s political, religious, and intellectual establishment.

Today, the people calling for the end of the arms trade could also be thought of as a small, fringe group with little chance of success. Millions of people depend on the jobs and profits associated with arms production and trade. And, armaments are among the largest exports of the US and other permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Nonetheless, there is an international group of people calling for the end of the arms trade, and this just might be the time when such a move is possible.

One of those people is Saul Mendlovitz, director of the World Order Models Project and Dag Hammerskjold Professor of Peace and World Order Studies at Rutgers Law School. Saul is heading up an international effort aimed at making the arms trade as unacceptable as the slave trade is now. And just as ending the slave trade was a first step to ending the institution of slavery, Saul believes ending the arms trade could be a key to ending war. I met Saul at his office in New York City.


Disarmament may now be a real possibility because of several inter-related developments, Saul says. The end of the Cold War has reduced fears of all-out war among those who had been members of the superpower alliances. The developing countries, released from their roles as pawns in the superpower game, now are free to consider for themselves how to achieve real security.

At the same time, unilateral battlefield force is no longer seen as an effective response to many of the world’s conflicts, Saul says. In Yugoslavia, Sudan, the Middle East, and elsewhere, it’s becoming clear that solutions are not found through massive military confrontations.

These developments mean that there is a new openness among many players to alternative approaches to security.


The idea for an international convention ending the arms trade was sparked by a resolution proposed by representatives of non-aligned nations and adopted at the 1991 General Assembly. That resolution calls for a voluntary registry of arms transfers.

The support of developing nations for the phasing out of arms transfers is key, according to Saul. None of the advocates of this proposed convention want to perpetuate the current lopsided balance of military power, which leaves the less-well-armed developing world at the mercy of the big arms producers.

The Draft Convention on the Monitoring and Reduction of the International Arms Trade was written and revised by a group of legal scholars, diplomats, and peace activists from over a dozen countries, including substantial representation from the developing world.

The convention builds on the long history of international laws that have sought to limit certain arms transfers and to regulate the conduct of warfare.

The convention calls for a three-phase disarmament process, which could take from five to 40 years:

  • The voluntary registry supported by the General Assembly would become mandatory and expand to include weapons stockpiles also. This phase is based on the emerging sense that security is better achieved through openness about the military stances of potential adversaries than through secrecy.

  • During the second phase, all nation-state military functions become defensive only. An international agency would verify each nation’s compliance. By the end of this phase, all arms production would be subject to outside monitoring.

  • The third phase would see the emergence of an alternative regional and/or global security system; national weapons stockpiles would be eliminated; and arms production would be cut to the amount needed for internal order.

Using a legal document as a basis for a peace effort may put some people off, but it also offers a sort of legitimacy, Saul says. "You’ve honored it. You’ve privileged it in some fashion – made it more real."

Saul hopes that with sufficient preparation, the UN General Assembly will be ready to adopt the treaty by the centennial of the 1899 Hague conventions, which brought international law to bear on the practice of warfare.

So, just as the 20th century was free of slavery – at least as an accepted part of civil society – the 21st century could see the end of armaments and war as legitimate means for resolving conflict.

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