In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disarmament in International Law

  • Introduction
  • Definition
  • Textbooks
  • Initial Disarmament in International Law (Hague)
  • Regulatory and Prohibition International Legal Regimes
  • From Mass Destruction to Micro-Disarmament
  • Humanitarian Disarmament

International Law Disarmament in International Law
Denise Garcia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0204


The international regulation of armaments is an important factor and a tool to achieve international peace and security. All states will gain from the value of having weapon systems either controlled or prohibited, if the control measures are well crafted, verified, and enforced. More cooperation and compliance with global norms, set by international law that limit armaments, mean more peace and security. Less coordination and no governing rules mean a more insecure world and precarious relations among states. International disarmament law, or the law of disarmament, has evolved to constitute a separate branch of international law, similar to international environmental law and international criminal law. The biggest shift in recent years has been the rise of what is called “humanitarian disarmament” and the accompanying legal framework that developed. The focus is on humanizing international security through the setting of principled, multilateral treaties that safeguard human security, not solely national security. If faithfully implemented, international regulations on arms may reduce the humanitarian impact of violence and prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction. The codification of global norms on disarmament through international law signifies progress in international relations and improves human security worldwide. This progress is based upon the foundational legal framework set up by the United Nations Charter on disarmament. One of the main functions of the convening power of the United Nations is its responsibility to progressively codify international law and allow for its evolution. Therefore, it may also exercise such role and function within the gradual and continuing role of developing disarmament law.


The concept of disarmament has evolved in the decades following the creation of the United Nations. In the aftermath of World War II, the concept of “general and complete disarmament” (GCD) gained ground and inspired actions to rid the world of armaments especially from the United States; however, the GCD was operationalized by steps and action in different areas, i.e., vis-à-vis different types of weapons. The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons of 1981 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992 are two examples. Due to recent work by the United Nations stemming the General Assembly session of the United Nations Disarmament Commission of 2017, however, those original intent and goals have enlarged to contain a more comprehensive approach and definition of disarmament to tackle the permanent problem of war and to create frameworks to enable the collective maintenance of peace and security. The move toward a broader definition and understanding of disarmament is driven by the reality that cyber security and artificial intelligence-based technologies are already profoundly transforming the world. The future of peace and security will necessitate dual-use—military and civilian—novel governance approaches to disarmament. “Disarmament” is the usual term to denote the elimination, as well as the limitation or reduction, through negotiations and subsequent international agreement, of the means by which nations wage war. Since the end of the Cold War, “disarmament” and “arms control” have been used interchangeably. The focus of this article is multilateral disarmament, i.e., measures utilized by more than two countries to reduce armaments and to search for peace and security by means of an international treaty agreed to by all the parties. All countries will derive benefits from having certain weapons controlled or prohibited. Thus, the prospects for peace and security will be enhanced from more established global disarmament norms.

  • Bolton, Matthew. “Time for a Discursive Rehabilitation: A Brief History of General and Complete Disarmament.” In Rethinking General and Complete Disarmament in the Twenty-First Century. By United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, 3–14. UNODA Occasional Papers 28. New York: United Nations, 2016.

    Bolton provides an essential and erudite overview of the concept of general and complete disarmament (GCD). The author examines GCD by tracing related movements and initiatives, including those that have attempted the abolition of war and the peace movements since World War I, and situates those efforts within the current trends of humanitarian disarmament

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