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The International Law Framework for Nuclear Weapons Policy

World Court Opinion

On July 8, 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the judicial branch of the United Nations, issued its advisory opinion, The Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. The ICJ found 1) that the threat or use of nuclear weapons "would generally be contrary" to humanitarian and other international law regulating the conduct of warfare, and 2) that under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other international law states are obligated to "bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.

The opinion and its implications are summarized in the introduction to a new book by Dr. John Burroughs, The Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons: A Guide to the Historic Opinion of the International Court of Justice (click here for announcement and order form), Lit Verlag, Muenster, 1997, brought out by the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA). Burroughs is an attorney for the Western States Legal Foundation (WSLF) in Oakland, California, and holds a J.D. and Ph.D. from Boalt Hall Law School, University of California, Berkeley. He served as legal coordinator for IALANA/World Court Project at the November 1995 hearings before the ICJ. The background of the case, and states' arguments to the Court, are described in an article by Burroughs and WSLF executive director Jacqueline Cabasso, "Nukes on Trial", in the March/April 1996 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Western States Legal Foundation has monitored the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, focusing on Livermore, for more than 15 years, and also has been active in international settings including Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review proceedings. WSLF plans to have its own website in 1998.

Another brief analysis of the opinion, also describing the judges' separate statements, is Notes on a Misunderstood Decision: The World Court's Near Perfect Advisory Opinion in the Nuclear Weapons Case by IALANA co-president Peter Weiss.

In an October 1, 1997 open letter to the Prime Minister, the First Sea Lord, and other United Kingdom officials entitled Trident and Nuremberg, Commander Robert Green, Royal Navy (Ret'd), argues that the UK's policy regarding Trident deployment is contrary to the World Court opinion and the Nuremberg principles, including the principle of individual responsibility. While on active duty, Green operated nuclear weapons systems and later served in a policy planning position including with respect to nuclear weapons.  His arguments would apply to US nuclear weapon policy as well. Green and the World Court Project UK have also published a booklet, Implications of the Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice on the Legal Status of Nuclear Weapons. Another discussion of the relevance of Nuremberg law is Nuremberg and Nuclear Weapons, by David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

One of the most significant elements of the ICJ opinion was the Court's interpretation of the Article VI obligation to achieve nuclear disarmament through good faith negotiation, and its delinkage of that obligation from the obligation, also contained in Article VI, to negotiate general and complete nuclear disarmament. An exchange regarding The Meaning and Policy Context of the Article VI Nuclear Disarmament Obligation between Don Westervelt of Los Alamos National Laboratory and John Burroughs was carried by the Los Alamos Monitor in the spring of 1996.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty--Legal Aspects, a Western States Legal Foundation information sheet by John Burroughs, provides a brief analysis of CTBT issues including the current status of the obligation not to conduct nuclear explosive tests; entry into force; possible provisional application of the treaty; and the scope of the prohibition of nuclear explosive tests--e.g., does it include planned or possible "laboratory-scale" explosions.

See also: English Translation of International Court of Justice President Bedjaoui's Declaration Appended to the Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons


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