By 1976 it was clear that no real progress had been made to halt the arms race. World military expenditure was estimated at many times more than the amount spent globally on health, education, and economic development. While the nuclear-weapon powers were the major competitors in the arms race, military spending by countries outside the two main military alliances was also rising. Since the end of the Second World War, many millions of people have been killed by conventional weapons in more than 100 wars, most of them fought in the developing areas of the world.
In 1976, the General Assembly, deploring the "meagre achievements" up to that time of the first Disarmament Decade in terms of truly effective agreements, decided, primarily at the initiative of developing countries, to hold a special session in 1978 devoted entirely to disarmament. The aim of the session was to set a new course in international affairs, turn states away from the nuclear and conventional arms race, and obtain agreement on a global strategy for disarmament.
The first special session on disarmament, held at UN headquarters from 23 May to 1 July 1978, was the largest, most representative meeting of nations ever convened to consider the question of disarmament. For the first time in the history of disarmament endeavors, the international community of states as a whole achieved a consensus on a comprehensive disarmament strategy, which was embodied in the Final Document adopted at the session.
The Final Document stressed the central role and primary responsibility of the UN in the field of disarmament and placed disarmament issues in a more comprehensive perspective than had ever been done before. It reaffirmed the fundamental importance of disarmament to international peace and security and stated that "disarmament and arms limitation agreements should provide for adequate measures of verification satisfactory to all parties." It contained specific measures intended to strengthen the machinery dealing with disarmament within the UN system. Composed of four parts—an introduction, a declaration, a program of action, and a section on machinery—the Final Document set out goals, principles, and priorities in the field of disarmament.
The Introduction stated that while the final objective should continue to be general and complete disarmament under effective international control, the immediate goal was the elimination of the danger of a nuclear war and the implementation of measures to halt and reverse the arms race.
The Declaration stated that "the increase in weapons, especially nuclear weapons, far from helping to strengthen international security, on the contrary weakens it, … heightens the sense of insecurity among all states, including the non-nuclear-weapon states, and increases the threat of nuclear war." It further stated that "genuine and lasting peace can only be created through the effective implementation of the security system provided for in the Charter of the United Nations and the speedy and substantial reduction of arms and armed forces." It emphasized that, in the adoption of disarmament measures, the right of each state to security should be kept in mind and that, at each stage of the disarmament process, "the objective should be undiminished security at the lowest possible level of armaments and military forces."
The Program of Action listed priorities and measures that states should undertake as a matter of urgency in the field of disarmament. Priorities included nuclear weapons; other weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons; and conventional weapons, including any that might be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects. The program called for agreements or other measures to be "resolutely pursued on a bilateral, regional and multilateral basis with the aim of strengthening peace and security," and it recommended that measures be taken and policies pursued to strengthen international peace and security and to build confidence among states. The urgency of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and of halting nuclear tests was stressed. The program called for full implementation of the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco, prohibiting nuclear weapons in Latin America, and recommended steps to put into effect the proposals for the establishment of other nuclear-weapon-free zones. Other measures included prohibition of the development, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons; limits on the international transfer of conventional weapons; agreed reduction of military budgets; and further study of the question of verification. The program also listed measures to be undertaken to mobilize world public opinion on behalf of disarmament.
The final section, on Machinery, noted the urgency of revitalizing the disarmament machinery and outlined the consensus reached on the strengthening or establishment of appropriate forums, of suitably representative character, for disarmament deliberations and negotiations, as well as for other activities to be undertaken, including research.
Acting on the recommendations of the special session, the General Assembly established, as a specialized, subsidiary deliberative body, a revitalized Disarmament Commission composed of all UN members. It was assigned the mandate of making recommendations on disarmament problems as requested by the General Assembly, and to follow up the relevant decisions and recommendations of the special session on disarmament.
The special session recognized the continued need for a single multilateral negotiating forum on disarmament and recognized that the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva should continue to fulfil this role and to carry on the work of its predecessors—the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1959–60), the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1962–69) and the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969–78). Known as the Conference on Disarmament since 1979, it has a membership of 66 countries, including the five nuclear-weapon states and most of the militarily powerful states of the world's regions.
Other results of the General Assembly's first special session included the establishment of a program of fellowships on disarmament; an increased flow of information on disarmament to governments, nongovernmental organizations, the media, and the general public; and the designation of the week beginning 24 October (UN Day) to be observed each year as Disarmament Week (see also under Studies, Research, Information, and Training below).
In order to enable the UN to fulfil its role in the field of disarmament and to carry out the tasks assigned to it, the special session took steps to strengthen the role of the section of the UN Secretariat handling disarmament affairs, the Centre for Disarmament Affairs. The centre's main tasks include maintaining a database on conventional armaments transfers, supporting ongoing deliberations and negotiations in New York, Geneva, and elsewhere, fostering regional confidence and security building initiatives, and disseminating information to sources outside the UN.
In 1979, the General Assembly declared the 1980s as the Second Disarmament Decade, stating that its goals should remain consistent with the ultimate objective of general and complete disarmament. The basic goals of the Second Disarmament Decade were set out as follows: halting and reversing the arms race; conclusion of agreements on disarmament according to the objectives and priorities of the 1978 Final Document; strengthening international peace and security in keeping with the UN Charter; and reallocating resources from military to development purposes, particularly in favor of developing countries.
In the four years following the first special session, the international situation in fact deteriorated: numerous events beyond effective UN influence evolved in such a way as to hinder international arms-limitation efforts, particularly in the early 1980s, when military expenditures increased and a lack of confidence permeated disarmament discussions and affected negotiations. After some initial progress, negotiations stalled on virtually every important disarmament issue, and the 1978 Program of Action remained substantially unimplemented.
The second special session of the General Assembly devoted to disarmament was held at UN headquarters from 7 June to 10 July 1982. Given the international tension and armed conflicts prevailing at that time, the atmosphere did not bode well for the reaching of further accords on sensitive, substantive issues then relating to the perceived national security interests of states.
At the time of the first special session in 1978, the General Assembly had reaffirmed the goal of general and complete disarmament, a concept that had received considerable attention even before that in the framework of the UN. The emphasis placed on general and complete disarmament slowly gave way to another approach, known as the comprehensive program of disarmament. The intent of the approach was to elaborate a program which would place partial measures of disarmament into a carefully considered plan, setting out objectives, priorities, and timeframes, with a view to the achievement of disarmament on a progressive basis.
A main agenda item of the session—to elaborate the strategy of the 1978 Program of Action into a Comprehensive Program of Disarmament—was not achieved. Thus, the General Assembly did not agree, as it had in 1978, on a formula for specific action. In the Concluding Document of the session, however, the General Assembly unanimously reaffirmed the validity of the Final Document of the first special session on disarmament. It expressed its profound preoccupation over the danger of war, particularly nuclear war, and urged member states to consider as soon as possible proposals for ensuring prevention of such a war. The General Assembly also stressed again the need for strengthening the central role of the UN in the field of disarmament, for implementing the security system provided for in the Charter of the UN, and for enhancing the effectiveness of the multilateral negotiating body, the Committee on Disarmament.
The committee and then the Conference on Disarmament continued to negotiate the draft comprehensive program of disarmament until 1989. At the end of the conference's session that year, it was agreed to suspend work on the program until the circumstances were more propitious for progress.
Among the other decisions of the second special session was the launching of a World Disarmament Campaign to increase public awareness of disarmament issues (see also under Studies, Research, Information, and Training below). The General Assembly also decided to convene a third special session on disarmament (subsequently scheduled to be held in 1988 at UN headquarters).
The third special session took place in 1988 against the background of a considerably improved international climate. The progress that had been recorded in some important fields of disarmament, in particular nuclear disarmament, was welcomed throughout the debates during the session.
The 1987 Treaty between the former Soviet Union and the United States on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty); the achievements of the 1986 Stockholm Conference on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe; and the 1986 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Rarotonga) were indicative of the favorable trends in arms control and disarmament.
The progress reported on the negotiations that had begun before the commencement of the special session, between the former Soviet Union and the United States, on a treaty on the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms (START) (see below), as well as progress made in the Conference on Disarmament on the complete elimination of chemical weapons, also were highly welcomed. All this notwithstanding, member states were unable to adopt by consensus a final document setting the pace and direction for future negotiations.
In December 1995, the General Assembly decided to convene a Fourth Special Session devoted to disarmament in 1997. However, as the Disarmament Commission completed its 1998 session, it had not come to agreement on the objectives and agenda of the proposed fourth special session, then pushed back to 1999. In December 1999, the General Assembly decided anew to convene the fourth session on disarmament and requested the Secretary-General to seek the views of the member states on the objectives, agenda, and timing. A fourth session on disarmament had not taken place as of November 2002.