World Court declares Nuclear Weapons Threat and Use Illegal
Press Release World Court Project July 8 1996
In a landmark decision today, the International Court of Justice declared that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be "contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict" in just about any imaginable circumstance.
The only exception to this sweeping declaration of illegality was the Court's holding that "in view of the current state of international law and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake."
The single vote on these two provisions was seven to seven, with the President casting the deciding vote. However, since three of the dissenting judges did so because they took the complete illegality view and did not agree with the possible "extreme circumstance" exception, the vote for general illegality was, in effect, ten to four.
The Court unanimously stressed that, in accordance with Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, "there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control."
The Court was also unanimous that nuclear weapons, like any weapons, are subject to the law of armed conflict protecting civilians, combatants, the environment, neutral nations, and succeeding generations from the effects of warfare, as well as United Nations Charter prohibitions of threat or use of force except in self- defense.
Peter Weiss, co-president of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, welcomed the Court's opinion, stating, "This was an appropriate sequel to Wimbledon, with a group of unseeded states carrying the day against the world's top seeds. The Court has charted a clear path toward nuclear abolition, in terms both of its legal analysis and its appeal to start taking Article VI of the NPT seriously."
Commander Robert Green, Royal Navy (ret.), of World Court Project UK, said: "With this remarkable decision, I could never have used a nuclear weapon legally. This places a duty on the military to review their whole attitude toward nuclear weapons, which are now effectively in the same category as chemical and biological weapons."
In response to a request for an advisory opinion from the World Health Organization concerning the legality of use of nuclear weapons in view of their health and environmental consequences, the Court found that it had no jurisdiction because the legality of nuclear weapons is not within the scope of WHO activities. Ann Marie Janson, WHO liaison for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), commented that, "This case was initiated by the WHO, with a boost from IPPNW, which understands that prevention is the only medical response to the threat of nuclear war. We are happy that the Court referred to the need to protect the environment and future generations from nuclear damage in the General Assembly case, but we are disappointed that these same health aspects were understood only by the three dissenting judges in the WHO case."
The Court's opinion in the General Assembly case comes as a blow to the United States, United Kingdom, France and Russia, all of which urged the Court not to consider the case. The case was initiated by international peace and disarmament groups including the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), International Peace Bureau (IPB) and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Not having direct access to the World Court, they successfully petitioned the World Health Assembly and the United Nations General Assembly to make requests for advisory opinions. Fredrik Heffermehl of IPB stated, "This case is an encouraging example of the ability of people's organizations to make use of international institutions like the World Court, which are meant to serve the world's people and not only their governments."
Contacts: IALANA secretariat
Phon van den Biesen, IALANA
phone +31-(0)20-6274442 (home)
Peter Weiss, IALANA, and Fredrik Heffermehl, IPB, can be reached at the IALANA secretariat.
Rob Green, World Court Project UK, can be reached at +31 70 360 8905.
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