Civil Society and Officials Teamed Up in the World Court Project

By Kate Dewes | 1998-07-01 12:00:00

It's time again to strategize in this new round of work against the bomb. The new Middle Powers Initiative will benefit from the experience of activists such as New Zealand's Kate Dewes, who in this speech urged Canadian activists to form partnerships with friendly government officials. She drew on her experience in the International Steering Committee of the World Court Project, an NGO movement that succeeded in asking an opinion of the International Court of Justice concerning the legality of nuclear weapons

The World Court Project (WCP) grew out of attempts in various countries during the early 1980s to use the law to secure real nuclear disarmament in various countries. It took hold in Aotearoa/New Zealand following a massive public education campaign, and the election of a Labour government in 1984 with a mandate to outlaw both nuclear weapons and propulsion. Public opinion was firmly behind the policy, and the peace movement began to develop strong working relationships with both politicians and officials. When the Nuclear Free Act was finally passed in 1987, a Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control (PACDAC) was established to monitor its implementation; I served with that group. We monitored the government's U.N. voting on disarmament, exposing how New Zealand voted with the Western group even in opposition to their own policy. PACDAC also reviewed military alliances and U.S. bases, and began exploring initiatives such as the World Court Project and extending the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. For three years it tried to convince the government to lead the World Court Project.

Its composition was crucial to its effectiveness. Its first members were drawn from outspoken, independent citizen groups with strong grassroots support. Politicians needed an assertive group in order to counter the pressure from Western allies and those in the foreign ministry against the anti-nuclear policy. Former Prime Minister David Lange confirmed that the bureaucracy had a stranglehold on the policy process. It was hard for him to pursue an independent foreign policy reflecting what the New Zealand public wanted.

"Left to themselves, our diplomats would certainly have surrendered the nuclear-free policy," he has said. "Being a democracy wasn't enough; being well disposed towards NATO and the United States wasn't enough. You had to subscribe to deterrence to be in the alliance, and to prove it, you had to share in its risks."1

The PACDAC was established to provide a degree of accountability and to ensure public input into all levels of decision-making. Also, the government included two NGO representatives as full members of the 1988 UNSSOD III delegation. This provided an opportunity for them to learn how the U.N. system worked, establish relationships with diplomats and activists from a range of countries, and report back to their groups. They adopted U.N. dress codes and processes and learned to write succinct briefing papers, express convincing arguments, and listen carefully to the diplomats. Through this process trust and a symbiotic relationship grew between groups of people who were traditionally adversaries. The nuclear disarmament logjam could only be broken by working closely together, valuing each others' distinctive roles. During the Session, the foreign minister asked me to sound out support for the WCP from other governments and citizen groups. He was then able to distance himself from criticism by Western colleagues and Ministry officials by pointing to us as representatives of a mobilized public in an active democracy.

Our complementary roles helped when the French refused to budge on the final document's wording regarding international opposition to their nuclear testing. Our diplomats were frustrated with the blocking tactics of certain officials. One evening the N.Z. delegation was socializing with the Western diplomats and a French diplomat asked me to dance. I jokingly refused until he would agree to help establish an independent international scientific and medical inspection team to go to Mururoa to assess damage from the tests: something the international peace movement had promoted for many years. Finally he agreed to it. We danced and talked about our daughters and their future in a world with nuclear weapons. He left promising to show me a photo of his daughters the next day. On arrival at the Mission the next morning, however, I was infuriated to read in the cables that France had detonated two nuclear bombs at Mururoa overnight. Determined to confront him, I headed straight for the U.N. and we had a long, vigorous exchange. I challenged him to read about women giving birth to jellyfish babies in the booklet Pacific Women Speak,2 to share it with his wife, and to search his conscience. He was visibly moved, and grudgingly agreed to speak with his delegation about changing the wording in the final document. When I reported this to our ambassador he was delighted and asked me to join the ministry. What facilitated this change was my freedom to summon the moral authority of motherhood, and to speak strongly with no fear of losing a job or embarrassing my country.

Another relevant example was when a strong contingent of Canadian women arrived for a week to observe the proceedings. They distributed a submission entitled " Women: a Powerful Resource for Peace"3 calling for the Secretary-General to prepare a report on measures that could be taken by the UN to increase the participation of women in its peace and disarmament processes. As a full member of our delegation I was able to ensure that N.Z. ran with the idea. We convinced Australia and Canada to submit a joint working paper on it.4 Within four days a report from the Secretary General was distributed, calling for more representation by women.5 Canada's delegate, Colonel Morrison, quipped that he wouldn't be allowed back into the country unless women were mentioned in the Final Document!

Thus citizen groups, backed by strong public opinion, can have influence when governments are prepared to take the risk and facilitate access to the decision-making process. The close relationship between citizen groups and governments would prove vital to the success of both the World Court Project and Landmines campaign.

Building Support for the World Court Project

A few of the early World Court Project leaders had considerable experience working with government through influential organizations such as the Nobel Prize-winning International Peace Bureau (IPB) and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Such others as the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), the Womens' International League for Peace and Freedom, Parliamentarians for Global Action, Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement and Greenpeace International already had access to key decision makers and communication networks.

The early backing of these groups conferred respectability and authority on the project. Among their members were personal friends of key politicians in other countries. Gaining access to them helped us convince as many governments as possible to work together for resolutions in both the World Health Assembly (WHA) and the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA)

The small international steering committee comprised representatives of the three co-sponsoring bodies: IPB (Geneva), IALANA (Netherlands) and IPPNW (Boston), as well as the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy (New York), and groups in Aotearoa/ New Zealand. During the critical years 1992- 96, this core group tried valiantly to coordinate the most ambitious campaign that the international peace movement had ever attempted.

Buoyed by the end of the Cold War, there was a feeling that the impossible could be achieved if enough groups and governments mobilized behind the idea. Often working out of bedrooms and home-offices, lacking e-mail, we succeeded within a short U.N. deadline in stirring the "slumbering giant" of international law among the peace movement. Having committee members based at the primary nodes of action (New York, The Hague, Geneva and London) was vital for continuity and access to decision makers. A Southern Hemisphere node provided input from several states that are frequently excluded from deliberations.

This committee worked nearly fulltime on the campaign, pursuing both the WHA and UNGA avenues, finding sympathetic governments and building public support, especially in "middle" Western countries such as Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Aotearoa, and Japan, mainly through collecting Declarations of Public Conscience, endorsements from prominent persons, using the media and speaking tours by high-profile activists and academics. Endorsers contacted parliamentarians - especially those serving on the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select and Caucus Committees. Eventually over 700 organizations signed in support and nearly four million Declarations in 40 different languages were delivered to the U.N. and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as citizens' evidence. There was also a sample of the 100 million signatures from the Appeal from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Building Government Support

From 1991-93 there was a concerted effort to visit diplomatic missions in New York and Geneva seeking guidance as to how to proceed. The early public support by Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister, who was chairing the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), proved crucial in the passing of the resolution at the UNGA and the winning of support from the NAM Foreign Ministers and some key African states. Diplomats warned that, because of bullying by the nuclear states and their allies, they would need over fifty countries if they were to co-sponsor. With the ending of the Cold War, the initiative would probably gain sufficient U.N. support, but there would be intense lobbying to prevent the case going to the Court. A huge groundswell of public support would be needed, educating and bolstering of officials and politicians in capitals.

The three co-sponsoring organizations provided well-researched documents outlining the key arguments. Steering committee members visited capitals in Latin America, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Russia, Japan, San Marino and Zimbabwe, and attended the South Pacific Forum to lobby Prime Ministers. Members of Parliamentarians for Global Action were briefed and asked to submit written and oral questions in their parliaments. In some countries branches passed unanimous resolutions in support of the project and wrote letters to their leaders arguing the case. Supportive politicians promoted the project within the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Women Parliamentarians for Peace.

IPPNW introduced resolutions at the World Health Assembly concerning the health and environmental effects of nuclear weapons. They tailored the arguments to suit the medical profession and targeted members who were Ministers of Health or their advisers. A high powered IPPNW delegation visited the capitals of Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus after their decision to renounce nuclear weapons and encouraged them to co-sponsor the WHA resolution.

Doctors at the WHO

IPPNW fielded a team of experts to monitor both the 1992 and 1993 World Health Organization proceedings, again asking Ministers of Health to share inside information, which helped them counter NATO-led misinformation. The team produced copious documentation for delegates and bolstered wavering diplomats who faced pressure to change their vote. One key minister was Hilda Lini from Vanuatu - a peace activist, mother, and a WHO Vice President. At a critical moment she shared powerful stories about the health effects of nuclear testing on South Pacific populations, combining fact, reason and passion with a sense of urgency. Reportedly,

"everything fell silent when she spoke. Her speech was a defining moment when the whole psychological tide turned in our favor and there was a palpable energy and feeling that we were going to win at that point. She stepped out of the traditional governmental role and spoke from her heart. She was not speaking just for herself, you could feel many people speaking through her - she had that power of conviction."6

Similar strategies were adopted by the lobbying team during the 1993 UNGA. By this stage the Non-Aligned Movement had decided to co-sponsor a radical resolution asking for an opinion on the threat and use of nuclear weapons. To gain the support of some of the middle Western states, NGO delegates quietly showed diplomats media reports of probable government support from Ireland and New Zealand, a supportive letter from the newly elected Canadian Prime Minister, and evidence that the Italian foreign affairs committee had passed a binding resolution requiring the government to support the resolution. Inevitably, cracks appeared within the NAM, with NATO client states blocking consensus. Canada's disarmament ambassador spoke of the hysterical reaction of the nuclear weapon states, while other ambassadors reported that the U.S., U.K., and France had sent delegations to many capitals threatening trade relations and aid if the resolution was not withdrawn.

Role of Women

A few courageous Non-Aligned Movement diplomats put their jobs on the line, going beyond their government's instructions in order to get the resolution through. Their resolve was strengthened by the presence of two South Pacific matriarchs (Lini and a Maori elder) who were treated as chiefs by the Ambassadors from the region. During a critical closed meeting, when it looked as though the NAM would crumble, Lini "eyeballed" her colleagues inside while the others shook hands with delegates as they entered and kept vigil outside. According to key diplomats the presence of women had a profound impact on the process. Lini described how

"sometimes in a very difficult situation, just the fact that a woman is there makes a difference. Certain men become more sympathetic to the cause because a woman is bringing the issue up and relating it to the family and community level....They are emotional and down-to-earth in their reasoning and arguments."7

Although the NAM finally succumbed to pressure and deferred the resolution after introducing it, they reserved the right to reintroduce it the following year, which they did. It was adopted in 1994 by 77 votes to 33. Just prior to the UNGA the ICJ had accepted 36 submissions on the WHO question, 22 of which argued strongly for finding nuclear weapons illegal. Within a year 10 more countries submitted briefs on the UNGA question or joined in the oral hearings. New Zealand, Ireland, Sweden and Australia were forced by public opinion to break ranks with the Western bloc and argue for illegality; only Germany and Italy backed four of the nuclear states.

It was by far the largest and most controversial case ever heard by the ICJ, with 45 countries and the WHO participating, and the first time citizen evidence had been received in support of a case. Citizen groups liaised closely with officials from the Court, gaining unprecedented access, holding meetings with the Registrar and even meeting the judges. Politicians, diplomats, and officials were frequently ignorant not only of the legal arguments, but of the Court's role and procedures. They sought advice from citizen groups on preparing submissions.

Testimonies of the Victims

Although the co-sponsoring organisations could not put in submissions, they had witnesses included in government delegations, and some countries referred to documents prepared by nuclear, medical, and legal experts. At times the abstract legal arguments were linked to the horrific realities of the victims of nuclear weapons. The Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki illustrated their moving testimonies with huge photographs of the bombings of their cities accompanied by the muted sobs of the hibakusha (victims) present. Later a Marshallese woman wept as she told of women giving birth to "bunches of purple grapes" and deformed children, clearly illustrating the intergenerational effects of nuclear weapons. Inevitably these presentatio s must have evoked compassion, thereby providing a balance between the heart and the head. During the oral proceedings there was a constant vigil by Buddhist monks, while citizens from around the world held banners outside.


by mobilizing public opinion behind the Project, governments were given a mandate to explore an exciting opportunity to break out of the bloc thinking and work cooperatively with other governments and citizen groups to promote democratic procedures within the U.N. Vigilant citizen groups based at the key nodes of the WHO, UNGA and ICJ helped hold decision makers accountable. The collection of declarations, endorsements from groups and prominent individuals helped sympathetic politicians withstand pressure from the nuclear states and their allies, and reminded the ICJ judges that the eyes of the world were on them.

The Project educated governments and the wider public about the World Court, nuclear weapons, and the law. It forced governments to clarify their own thinking on the legal status of the weapons and to argue their positions publicly. Some nuclear weapon states then argued that nuclear deterrence was illegal for all but themselves. Citizen groups began questioning the unwritten "permanent status" of the nuclear weapon states in always having had ICJ judges, and exposed how only the U.K. accepted its compulsory jurisdiction. Groups also lobbied for the first woman judge to be appointed in 1996, thereby contributing to the democratization of the Court.

The WCP was fortunate. It caught the post-Cold War revival of disarmament momentum, including agreement over the Chemical Weapons Convention and progress toward a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The break-up of the USSR forced the nuclear weapon states to acknowledge that nuclear proliferation was the greatest threat to world security, and doubts grew about the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. The acrimonious review and extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and subsequent Chinese and French testing kept the nuclear issue at the top of the international agenda.

The Project gave grassroots activists from diverse cultures key roles in the collection of declarations, writing to politicians and newspapers and faxing ambassadors. They frequently elicited responses from decision makers which were used to apply pressure even in the highly formalized proceedings of the U.N. It gave ordinary people hope that an ICJ Opinion could break the logjam surrounding nuclear disarmament and thus achieve change. The Opinion has provided legal backing for nonviolent direct actions taken by citizens as part of any societal verification process. The Project became a conduit for creating a more democratic U.N., bringing nearer the realization of the original vision expressed in its Charter: that "We the peoples" are "determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war."

1. David Lange, Nuclear Free: The New Zealand Way ( Auckland, Penguin, 1990), p.194.

2. Women Working for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (eds), Pacific Women Speak, (Green Line, London, 1987)

3. Submission by Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, "Women: A Powerful Resource for Peace,"U.N. Special Session on Disarmament, 9 June 1988, 3pp.

4. U.N. working paper submitted by Australia, Canada and New Zealand, "Advancement of women in the disarmament process," A/S-15/AC.1/24, 22 June 1988.

5. Report of the U.N. Secretary General, "Programmes and activities undertaken by the United Nations system in the area of women and peace," A/S-15/40, 14 June 1988.

6. Interview with IPPNW's WCP Director, Michael Christ, New York, May 1995.

7. Interview with Hilda Lini, New York, April 1995.

The author is completing a Ph.D. in history, with a dissertation on the World Court Project, which she expects to publish next year as a book. She can be contacted by email at

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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