It is a painful reality that, throughout the nuclear era and the cold war, and now in the post-cold war world, all armed conflicts—almost every one of them in developing countries—have been fought with conventional weapons. More than 20 million people have died in those wars. Every year, armed conflicts are waged in some 30 locations on the planet, all fought with conventional weapons. Conventional weapons and armed forces account for some four-fifths of global military expenditures and for approximately 80% of the world arms trade.
Thus, while consideration of nuclear questions has dominated disarmament debates in the UN and other forums, the problems posed by the conventional arms race and arms transfers have come increasingly to the fore, particularly in the 1980s. In the disarmament forums at the UN, discussions of the issue of conventional disarmament have focused on four main elements: (a) limitations on conventional weapons themselves; (b) transparency in international arms transfers and the establishment of a UN Register on Conventional Arms; (c) the regional approach and the building of military confidence and security among states; and (d) the strengthening of international humanitarian and disarmament law with respect to inhumane weapons, including the question of land mines.
In 1986, "conventional disarmament" was considered as a separate item on the agenda of the General Assembly for the first time, and, as a result, in 1987 it appeared on the agenda of the Disarmament Commission, indicating an increasing acceptance of the view that nuclear and conventional disarmament should proceed simultaneously.
When the question of prohibiting the use of certain conventional weapons, such as napalm and other incendiaries, was first raised in the General Assembly in the late 1960s, there were numerous proposals for banning various weapons, such as mines and booby traps, that also were deemed to cause unnecessary suffering or have indiscriminate effects. Considerable work, including some under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross and of diplomatic conferences on protocols to the Geneva Convention of 1949 relating to humanitarian law in armed conflicts, was done in the late 1960s and the 1970s. As noted above, in 1980, a UN conference at Geneva adopted the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects ; the convention was opened for signature in 1981 and came into force in December 1983.
On 1 January 1992 the UN Register of Conventional Arms was officially established and the first reports on arms transfers during 1992 were due to be received by the UN Centre for Disarmament Affairs by 30 April 1993. In October of 1993, the Secretary-General presented a consolidated report on the first year of operation of the register to the General Assembly, which brought the information presented by states into the public domain. Information was received from 87 states, including most of the major supplier countries, on arms imports and exports in seven categories of heavy conventional weapons—battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers. Submissions to the register, which are on a voluntary basis, are to be made by 30 April of each year. Upon the request of the General Assembly, the Secretary-General convened a group of experts in 1994 to examine the continuing operation of the register and its further development. In that connection, many states asserted that the information shared should include information on military holdings, on procurement through national production, and on weapons of mass destruction. They believed that these additions to the register would help to attract wider universality in reporting.
The establishment of the Register of Conventional Arms by the UN was a ground-breaking endeavor. The exchange of information enacted by means of the register has the potential to foster confidence among states and create an atmosphere more conducive to self-restraint and real measures of disarmament. The successful further development and operation of the register could provide the member states of the UN with an effective instrument of preventive diplomacy.
Also in relation to openness and transparency in military matters, the Disarmament Commission completed its work on guidelines and recommendations for objective information on military matters, which were endorsed by the General Assembly. Also in 1992, the Conference on Disarmament took up for the first time an item dealing with conventional weapons under a new agenda item entitled "Transparency in armaments." It continued consideration of the item in 1993 and 1994 in the framework of a subsidiary body of the conference, and presented a report to the General Assembly on its work in 1993.
In October 2002, the UN held a symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of the UN Register of Conventional Arms. As of that year, more than 160 governments had reported to the Register at least once. Submissions by governments for the years 2000 and 2001 recorded sharp increases over all the preceding years.
Early international humanitarian laws dealt with the effects of inhumane conventional weapons. The St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868 recognized that the object of warfare would not be served by the use of weapons that uselessly aggravate the suffering of disabled soldiers. The "dum-dum" bullet, developed a few years later, was banned by the 1899 Hague Conference as contrary to the St. Petersburg Declaration. Principles enunciated in the St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868 and the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 were repeated in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, prohibiting the employment of weapons, projectiles, and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. Between 1974 and 1977, two protocols were negotiated to the Geneva Conventions, but were not considered effective at adopting any prohibitions or restrictions on conventional weapons.
In 1977, the General Assembly decided to convene a UN conference with the aim of reaching an agreement on prohibitions or restrictions of use of certain conventional weapons. The UN Conference, held at Geneva in 1979 and 1980, adopted the convention, which entered into force on 2 December 1983. Annexed Protocol I prohibits the use of any weapons that injure with fragments that are not detectable by X-rays. Protocol II prohibits or sets out restrictions on the use of mines (excluding anti-ship mines), booby-traps, and other delayed action devices. Protocol III prohibits or outlines restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, that is, weapons designed with the primary purpose of setting fire to objects or causing injury by means of fire.
Among other items of discussion with respect to the review of the convention, the vast toll in civilian life and bodily injury, together with the devastation of societies and economies in post-conflict situations caused by the massive and indiscriminate use of land mines, has been receiving greater international attention. In 1993, the General Assembly called upon all states to adopt a moratorium on the export of antipersonnel land mines. In a related resolution, the General Assembly requested the Secretary-General to prepare a report on the problems caused by the increasing presence of mines and other unexploded devices resulting from armed conflicts and on the manner in which the United Nations' contribution to the solution of problems relating to mine clearance could be strengthened.
As part of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's reform, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) was created to coordinate the mine-related activities of 11 UN departments and agencies. Wholly funded by the Voluntary Trust for Assistance in Mine Action, UNMAS spearheaded the development of the Mine Action and Effective Coordination: The United Nations Policy, a document that serves as the basis for the coordinated, systemwide approach to mine action. While UNMAS focused its efforts on removing existing land-mines, the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction aimed to eliminate, or at least reduce the number of, new land-mines. The convention entered into force March 1999.