Most of us would agree that nuclear weapons are evil. They're expensive. Making and testing them produces deadly radioactive waste. A single one could flatten a city in a flash. And they could extinguish all life on earth within W hours. But are they legal?
In mid-May 1992, an upstart resolution almost brought the question of the legality of nuclear weapons use before the World Court. Because of intensive lobbying by the United States it was sidelined at the 45th World Health Assembly (WHA),the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The draft resolution, "Health and Environmental Effects of Nuclear Weapons," reasoned that WHO action was urgently needed because of the serious threat to life and health posed by the continued existence and proliferation of thousands of nuclear weapons. WHO has in the past commissioned comprehensive studies which document the inability of any health service to deal with the injuries and devastation resulting from the use of even a single nuclear weapon.
The draft resolution was the product of discussions which the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) had initiated with various delegations from around the world prior to and during the WHA meeting. IPPNW is a founding member of the "World Court Project," along with the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA) and the International Peace Bureau. This international coalition of physicians, lawyers and the peace movement was formed to apply to the rule of international law to nuclear weapons as an essential step toward eliminating one of the greatest threats to humankind.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague, also known as the World Court, can only be petitioned by member states of the United Nations or authorized bodies of the UN, such as WHO. As a medical organization, IPPNW is working with WHO delegates to request a World Court advisory opinion on nuclear weapons use. IALANA is pursuing a similar measure through the UN General Assembly, including the legal status of the threatened use of nuclear weapons.
Within five days, 14 countries had co-sponsored and submitted the resolution, and on May 9th it was officially added to the agenda of Committee "A" that deals with substantive matters related to health and the environment.
In a surprise move, the next day the resolution was referred to the 25-member General Committee to consider "the most appropriate agenda item under which to consider the resolution." 'The General Committee deals with procedural issues and organizes the business of the assembly.
Many delegates, particularly those from the developing world where dollars for basic health care programs are scarce, reported to IPPNW observers that they were subject to overt economic and political pressure from the US to oppose the resolution. Canadian delegates reported that, even before the WHA opened, they were quietly encouraged by the US delegation to amend out of existence any resolution that would bring the nuclear question before the World Court should it manage to get to the floor of WHA. After having failed to stop the drafting resolution, the next step for the pro-nuclear lobby was to shift the resolution from Committee "A" to the General Committee. If the question came to the full Assembly for a vote, then the solid anti-nuclear majority within the WHA would certainly prevail.
In the General Committee, the West, led by the US delegation, vehemently insisted that the matter was "beyond the technical competence" of WHO and that it must not move onto the floor of the assembly.
A recommendation to reject the resolution was narrowly carried out by a vote of 6 to 3 with 16 abstentions. The US, the UK, France, Italy, Zambia and Togo opposed the resolution; Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia voted in favour; and abstaining were Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Burma, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Lesotho, Maldives, Mozambique, Romania, Russia, Trinidad & Tobago, the United Emirates and Vietnam.
A WHO legal advisor told the General Committee and the full assembly that it was up to the WHA to determine its own competence from time to time. The WHA determined that they were not competent this year... So write your minister of health and urge them to bone up on the issues.
The 46th World Health Assembly convenes in Geneva on May 3rd, 1993.
Michael Christ is coordinator of the World Court Project for IPPNW in Cambridge, Massachusetts