From: Rob Green,  UK Chair World Court Project
Reply to:
ACTION: all Science for Peace members are asked to alert local media, and 
further information will be forwarded shortly in the form of a press 


By Commander Robert Green, Royal Navy (Retired)

The International Court of Justice (known as the World Court) in
The Hague should be forgiven if it felt a little nervous on 18
April at its fiftieth anniversary celebration. On Monday 8 July it
will answer probably the most politically explosive legal question
ever put to a court.

On 15 December 1994, despite countermoves by the NATO nuclear
weapon states, a clear majority of the UN General Assembly adopted
a resolution asking the Court: "Is the threat or use of nuclear
weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?"
The implications, especially for Britain, are far-reaching.  If
the answer is "no", not only will nuclear deterrence be illegal:
it will challenge the legal status of the five permanent members
of the UN Security Council.  Paradoxically, such a prospect offers
an opportunity for Britain to seize a world leadership role.

The moment would loom for the first declared nuclear weapon state
to break ranks.  Britain, with the smallest nuclear arsenal
increasingly dependent on the USA, and Trident a growing
embarrassment to the Royal Navy and Treasury, is best-placed to do
so.  Championing the law, it could lead a powerful new drive for
rapid prohibition of nuclear weapons in the same way as other
weapons of mass destruction have been. With chemical and
biological weapons prohibited by conventions and shunned by
military professionals, such a bold U-turn would be widely
welcomed, following global outrage at Chinese and French nuclear
tests.  Opinion polls last October showed that, even in Britain
and France, 51% now reject nuclear weapons.

The Court could use its discretion and decline to answer the
question.  At last November's public Court hearings, the NATO
nuclear states and Russia (China took no part) warned that it
would be ruling, in France's words, "not on an innocuous question
but on an essential which is at the core of the
national defence systems of a large number of States." But the
Court has never declined to give an opinion on a question from the
General Assembly - for good reasons.

If the Court drops the case, this would reinforce its image as
peripheral to world affairs.   Despite the fact that its Statute
is part of the UN Charter, there is widespread ignorance of its
work and potential. UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali has pointed
out how it is under-used.  Hitherto, this has allowed the
permanent members of the Security Council to keep such sensitive
issues away from the Court's consideration.

The Court would also be suspected of being manipulated by the
nuclear powers.  It is already vulnerable to this.  No state is
entitled to a judge, yet the Court includes a judge from all five
declared nuclear weapon states, and almost always has done.  This
may be why Rosalyn Higgins, the new British and only woman judge
in the Court's history, has stressed their impartiality: "I
believe the Judges take the Oath of Impartiality very seriously.
To my knowledge, governments do not at all  try to influence the
Judges in cases before the Court in which their national interests
are deemed to be at stake.  All governments would regard this as
crude and improper.  Indeed, it is when a case from one's own
country is before the Court that the Judges are most sensitive to
demonstrate their independence."

If the Court decides to give an advisory opinion, it has several
options.  These range from confirming any nuclear weapon threat or
use to be illegal, through qualifications of that. One possibility
not conceded by the USA, UK, France or Russia is that it will
simply decide that the international humanitarian laws of armed
conflict apply to nuclear weapons.

The World Court Project, an international network of lawyers,
doctors and peace activists, evolved the novel idea of using the
legal arm of the UN via a General Assembly resolution.  They argue
that the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention outlaws any use of these
weapons of mass destruction regardless of size, even in
self-defence.  Yet there is no such specific prohibition of
nuclear weapons, though their effects are more severe, extensive
and long-lasting.  They generate unparalleled blast and heat
effects; their radioactive products create terrible health
problems; and radioactivity's genetic effect is uniquely
cumulative through an unknown number of generations.

The Project drew upon the anti-nuclear majority of UN member
states, and by-passed the declared nuclear weapon states' veto in
the Security Council.  Also it mobilised public opinion in a new
way.  Some 3.7 million individual signed Declarations of Public
Conscience, mostly from Japan, have been presented to the Court
stating the belief that nuclear weapons are morally wrong.  They
invoke the "de Martens" clause of the 1907 Hague Convention, which
requires the Court to take the "dictates of the public conscience"
into account when judging the conduct of war.  This is the first
time the Court has accepted "citizens' evidence" in support of a

Forty-three governments made written submissions, and at the
hearings twenty-two made statements - the largest participation in
a World Court case.  Over two-thirds argued for illegality, and
only Germany and Italy testified orally in support of the NATO
nuclear trio and Russia.  The Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
allowed to testify by the Japanese government after strong public
pressure, were eloquent ambassadors for the victims of their
devastated cities.

Observers from Clifford Chance, London's largest commercial law
firm, attended the hearings. This suggests they recognise the
potential  implications.  A Court decision for illegality would
link nuclear weapons with chemical and biological weapons.  This
could make the Royal Navy, for example,  review the legal position
of Trident patrols.

Each judge will publicly justify their decision.  This case places
a heavy responsibility on them.    The Comprehensive Test Ban
Treaty negotiations adjourned last week in disarray.  A global
treaty banning nuclear weapons, adopted for other weapons of mass
destruction, would involve  consistent application of
international law.  Fifty years after the Cold War froze out the
Baruch Plan - the last serious attempt to ban nuclear weapons -
the Court by its answer could reactivate the legal route to
nuclear disarmament.