What it is:
A country disarms unilaterally when it scraps its weapons without waiting for other countries to agree to scrap theirs at the same time.

What it means: So far, unilateral disarmament has referred to nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, even though the United Nations charter calls for ‘general and complete disarmament’ of all weapons and military systems by all states - multilaterally - in order to put an end to war. For pacifists, multilateral disarmament has to be achieved if wars are to become a thing of the past. They also think that disarmament (of all weapons, not just a select few) is morally right, because killing people is morally wrong. But some people think that unilateral disarmament can be a good thing. It is, after all, at least one step towards complete disarmament (which for practical reasons might need doing in stages anyway). If a state gives up some of its weapons, it sets an example to others, encouraging them to do the same. Added to that, unilateral disarmament might lessen the chances of being attacked: a country without weapons is less likely to be seen as a threat to others.

As far as nuclear weapons are concerned, most countries haven't wanted to develop them at all. Others, like Canada, had nuclear weapons but chose to scrap them; and others, like South Africa, had nuclear programmes, but were pressured to choose to give them up. During the Cold War, the idea of unilateral disarmament was widely called for, especially by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the UK, as a way to encourage multilateral disarmament and end the nuclear arms race. In the 1980s, unilateral nuclear disarmament was the UK Labour party policy, but it was dropped when Labour looked more likely to get into government in the 1990s: now the Cold War was over (and there was even less justification for nuclear weapons), it was thought that disarmament might not win Labour enough votes. Since then, the UK and USA (and three other acknowledged nuclear states, China, France and the Russian Federation) have worked hard to persuade ‘unofficial’ nuclear states (except Israel) to disarm unilaterally. (India and Pakistan, however, began nuclear weapon testing in 1998.)

One problem of disarmament is verification: checking that the promise to dismantle weapons systems is actually being kept. This usually means sending in teams of ‘weapons inspectors’, who may not have their job made easy for them; however, efficient technology for verification has been developed. Not surprisingly, unilateral disarmament is unpopular with military leaders (and with most political leaders, too, whose mindset is locked in the belief that military power is the only way to get and keep security). The term ‘unilateral disarmament’ is used by military spokespeople disparagingly: cuts in military spending are called ‘disastrous, amounting to unilateral disarmament’ - for the military, UD looks like an open invitation for their country to be attacked. On the other hand, there are many retired senior army staff who publicly call for nuclear disarmament, unilateral or not.

Think about it: In the end (as so often) it‘s a question of attitude. ‘Unarmed, one is not a threat, so people don‘t attack you.’ ‘Unarmed, you‘re vulnerable and open to attack.’ Most people don‘t want to use weapons or be at the receiving end of them, yet confess they feel safer if there are weapons and armies available to ‘protect’ them. All the same, many countries have joined in creating nuclear weapon-free zones (including the whole of Africa and the whole of Latin America): only one type of weapon banned, but these states have shown that it can be done. Some local communities in conflict areas (such as Colombia) have set themselves up as conflict-free peace zones: no weapons, no fighters, no violence - and they have been treated with respect. Think of the many reports of unarmed individuals entering war zones or facing attackers (as many peace workers do) - and successfully defusing tense situations. Conflict can be handled and settled without weapons, if we have the right attitude. Work out ways in which you could spread that idea, by debate and by practical action. Don‘t forget that under the United Nations charter virtually the whole world signed up to disarmament: work out why the world has, so far, found it difficult, and what changes are needed to make it easy.