The World Court Project

Why is there no convention banning the use of nuclear weapons? Some peace groups now are working on that. You can participate

By Alan Phillips

Some of us may live to see the time when war is never thought of, when there is a dispute between nations or groups of people. Meantime, war is in fact accepted by governments as possible recourse, and there is a body of international law relating to it. The means by which one side may legally seek to damage the other are not unlimited. We work to change the way of thinking and to abolish war altogether, but we can also work by smaller steps to make "unaviodable" wars less devastating.

Numerous treaties have been agreed to over the past 150 years. Some are held to apply to all states, signatories or not. Two recent examples are the Biological and Chemical of 1972, and Chemical Weapons Conventions 1992 respectively. Both included timetables for destruction of aresenals: the latter included procedures for international inspection and verification. Earlier conventions outlawed dum-dum bullets (which burst on impact to increase injuries), and even bayonets with serrated edges. It is legal to injure an enemy soldier to the extent necessary to debilitate him, but illegal to inflict unnecessary suffering or to render his death inevitable. Any tactic of war is illegal if it does not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, or if it causes serious environmental damage.

Curiously and anomalously, there is so far no convention banning the use of nuclear weapons, even though they are the most indiscriminately destructive of all weapons. In addition to inconceivably violent explosions, the sufferings caused by burns, blindness, and radiation sickness would be as bad as, and probably worse than, those caused by poison gas or biological agents, let alone a serrated bayonet.

A brochure describing "The World Court Project" is enclosed with this issue of Peace Magazine. Please read it. Your endorsement will help. If this project is successful it will be a step towards a convention to ban nuclear weapons, similar to those banning chemical and biological weapons.

Lawyers and physicians from several countries have worked for years on the idea of requesting the International Court of Justice to give its opinion on the legality or otherwise of the use of a nuclear weapon. The Court's Opinion will be based on existing international law and norms of civilized behavior; it will not be an attempt to make new law. The lawyers have little doubt that there is a sufficient body of lawin past treaties and conventions to bring an opinion that the use of a nuclear weapon is illegal.

An advisory opinion can be requested only by the General Assembly of the United Nations, or by one of the organs of the U.N. In the spring of 1992 a motion was sponsored for the Assembly of the World Health Organization, and would have been supported by a number of national delegates, but it was prevented from getting on the agenda by United States' and Britian's lobbying. Obviously some governments do not want the legality of nuclear weapons to be discussed publicly: if use is deemed illegal how can they justify preparation to use the weapons, or research of such weapons and development? If legal, why should other countries be prevented from making them, and how could the non-nuclear countries be persuaded to renew the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

In May 1993 we had good news. The World Health Assembly (WHA) passed a motion (73 for, 40 against, 10 abstaining) to put the following question to the World Court: "In view of the health and environmental effects, would the use of nuclear weapons by a state in war or other armed conflict be a breach of its obligations under international law including the WHO Constitution?" In the ordinary course of events, unless some extraordinary pressure is brought to bear, the Court will consider the question, probably within a year.

In view of the strength of last year's pressure against the motion in WHA, this success was hardly expected. The plan is to continue lobbying to have a motion before the General Assembly of the U.N. this fall for a more general question, including threat of use as well as use of nuclear weapons.

As explained in the brochure, declarations of conscience from members of the public of all nations will have weight in the deliberations of the World Court. We want to collect a million signatures worldwide. At the time of writing, we know that in Britain over 30,000 have been collected, in New Zealand 8,000, and in Canada 5,000. We hope by the time of the General Assembly to have several times that number.

Readers of Peace Magazine, please all sign and mail the declaration on the brochure. You can first make photocopies, or type out the same or similar words, and get as many friends as possible to sign. Note that each person has to sign a separate statement. A single statement with multiple signatures is not acceptable, but the statement can be typed or copied 3 to a page. Signers donot have to be of voting age; we have had signatures from high school students.

Nobody thinks that an opinion from the World Court is going to make the countries with nuclear weapons say sorry, and destroy them all. But some of the expected benefits are:

1) It may make leaders of a small country think twice before using a nuclear bomb, since that would be a war crime.

2) In many countries the government has to justify its actions by a certain moral standard. If nuclear weapons were known to have been declared illegal, in the same disgraceful category as dum-dum bullets, poison gas, or bacteriological warfare, it would be difficult to justify continued research, deployment of nuclear weapons, and military training to use them.

3) It will strengthen the legal position of those who protest against testing nuclear weapons and delivery systems in their own countries.

In short, a successful outcome to this project would be another step in the direction of the abolition of weapons of mass destruction.

Alan and Joy Phillips are active in Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and members of Science for Peace. Alan is a retired physician. For more information on the Project, and a speakers kit, contact Canadian Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, 170-A Booth Street, Ottawa, On. K1R 7W1.Phone (613) 233-1982, Fax (613) 233-9028, E-Mail:

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1993

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1993, page 8. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Alan Phillips here

Peace Magazine homepage