LASG banner

The South Asia and Southeast Asia
Peace Activists Conference
"Peace Builds Bombs Destroy:
Let's Make Asia Nuclear Free"
Dhaka, Bangladesh, 18-20 February 2000

Plenary I, 18 February 2000


John Burroughs (Hague Appeal for Peace; International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms; Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, New York

As Admiral Ramdas mentioned, I bring greetings to you from the Hague Appeal for Peace. I also bring greetings from the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, which now comprises almost 1500 groups worldwide. If you have not already done so, please join the Network (, or contact me at the address provided below). And I bring you greetings from the US abolition movement - yes there are the beginnings of such a movement!


As you work to build a campaign to halt and reverse nuclearization of South Asia, I suggest you consider the lessons of 50 years of activism in the United States. During the Cold War years, the focus was on partial measures, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the agreements to cap and then to reduce the US and Soviet/Russian arsenals. The conceptual framework was one of ensuring "stability" and of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons: arms control and non-proliferation were the great catch phrases of those years. A whole industry grew up around this framework, not only in the government, but in think tanks, universities, non-governmental organizations. The thinking of the peace movement was deeply influenced by this environment.

Thus when the Berlin Wall came down, US groups were not prepared effectively to demand and advocate nuclear disarmament, i.e. the abolition of nuclear weapons. The old thinking still held sway. To be sure, some of the smaller groups, of which I have been a member, have called for abolition, and as I mentioned an embryonic abolition movement has been formed, but then several of the key small groups (like the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy and Western States Legal Foundation) had been advocating nuclear disarmament during the Cold War years!

Clearly, as Adm. Ramdas indicated, one of your tasks will be to work for nuclear restraint, responsibility, safety, and stability in South Asia. How can you do otherwise, given the imminent dangers? But I can see from this conference that you will also keep the complete denuclearization of South Asia foremost among your aims. If you do so, you can avoid the nearly exclusive focus on arms control and stability that has hampered the peace movement in the US.


As a representative of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, and its US affiliate, the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, it is natural for me to emphasize the contribution that law can make to nuclear disarmament. Given widespread violation, particularly by the United States, of the UN Charter, the disarmament obligation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, human rights instruments, it is tempting to be cynical about international law, to dismiss its importance. I believe this is a mistake. While we must keep our eyes wide open to hypocrisy, we must see law as a resource, just as we see other products of the human spirit as resources.

In 1983 there was a mass demonstration the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, one of the two principal nuclear weapons design and development laboratories in the United States (the other one is at Los Alamos in New Mexico). 2000 people were arrested, and held in jail for two weeks. In a local traffic court, my organization at the time, Western States Legal Foundation, argued on behalf of the protesters that they were acting reasonably and lawfully to prevent planning and preparation (Nuremberg Charter) for the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The protesters were nonetheless convicted, and arguments from international law have remained marginal in US political discourse.

More than a decade later, however, the same arguments were being made by governments before the International Court of Justice (World Court), the judicial branch of the United Nations, at the hearings in the nuclear weapons advisory opinion case in The Hague.

One of the points of argument was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India rightly has denounced the treaty as discriminatory, as the codification of a nuclear apartheid. And yet, as the arguments showed, the NPT does contain the seeds of universality.

On the first day of the hearings, October 30, 1995, Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister of Australia, argued to the Court that the norm of non-possession of nuclear weapons under the NPT "must now be regarded as reflective of customary international law". He stated that "if humanity and the dictates of the public conscience demand the prohibition of such weapons for some states, it must demand the same prohibition for all States. And following the end of the Cold War, there can no longer be, if there ever was, any practical imperative for treating nuclear-weapon States and non-nuclear-weapon States differently."

The Court essentially accepted that argument, unanimously concluding that: "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". Although not stated explicitly, the Court's reasoning made it quite clear that this obligation applies to all states, including those outside the NPT. The Court stated that "virtually the whole of [the international] community" has been involved in the adoption of unanimous General Assembly resolutions regarding nuclear disarmament, and that fulfilling the Article VI nuclear disarmament obligation is "an objective of vital importance to the whole of the international community today".

While the Court declined to confront deterrence head on, it did hold that a threat of use of illegal force is itself illegal. The illegal threat of use of nuclear weapons is inherent in the postures of deterrence (hair trigger deployment, declared policies of massive retaliation, first use, defence of "vital interests", etc.) now continuously maintained by the nuclear weapon states. So there is a legal dimension to the argument that Pakistan and India must not emulate the Permanent Five by deploying their weapons pursuant to doctrines of deterrence, because to do so is to increase the degree of illegality. Judge Weeramantry of Sri Lanka, recently retired from the Court, explained his rejection of deterrence in this way:

A global regime which makes safety the result of terror and can speak of survival and annihilation as twin alternatives makes peace and human future dependent upon terror. This is not a basis for world order which this Court can endorse.

One thing abolitionist civil society groups have become more clear about in the last five years, drawing on the World Court opinion, and stimulated in part by the insights of General Lee Butler, former commander of US strategic forces, is that nuclear disarmament requires an unequivocal rejection of the theology of nuclear deterrence and of the claim that international peace and security and global stability can and should be based on nuclear deterrence. Deterrence instead must be squarely recognized as illegal, immoral, and irresponsible. Despite its ambiguities, the World Court opinion at bottom strongly supports the delegitimization of deterrence. And this view is becoming more and more widespread. As Arundhati Roy percipiently observed, that is why India's adoption of the soulless, deadening rhetoric of deterrence has sounded so hollow and anachronistic.

next page

Los Alamos Study Group • 2901 Summit Place NE • Albuquerque, NM 87106 • ph 505-265-1200

[back to top]