[NEW YORK -- July 8, 1996] In a landmark decision today, the International Court of Justice declared that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be "contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict" in just about any imaginable circumstance. The ruling was unveiled this morning at the Hague and discussed in press briefings at the UN in Geneva and New York, as well as press conferences in Seattle, Hawaii, Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Australia, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The only exception to this sweeping declaration of illegality was the Court's holding that "in view of the current state of international law and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake."

The single vote on these two provisions was seven to seven, with the President casting the deciding vote. However, since three of the dissenting judges did so because they took the view that not even "extreme circumstances" would justify the threat or use of nuclear weapons, the vote for general illegality was, in effect, ten to four.

The Court unanimously stressed that States have a legal obligation not only to pursue "negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects", in accordance with Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also to "bring to a conclusion"such negotiations. The nuclear States have been resisting such negotiations. According to World Court President Bedjouai, the obligation to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons has now achieved "customary force." This means that such obligations apply to all States whether they are NPT signatories or not, and obviates the nuclear states' argument that nuclear disarmament must await the achievement of conventional, "general and complete disarmament."

The Court was also unanimous that nuclear weapons, like any weapons, are subject to the law of armed conflict protecting civilians, combatants, the environment, neutral nations, and succeeding generations from the effects of warfare, as well as the United Nations Charter prohibitions of threat or use of force except in self-defense.

Peter Weiss, co-president of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, welcomed the Court's opinion, stating, "This was an appropriate sequel to Wimbledon, with a group of unseeded states carrying the day against the world's top seeds. The Court has charted a clear path toward nuclear abolition, in terms both of its legal analysis and its appeal to start taking Article VI of the NPT seriously."

Commander Robert Green, Royal Navy (ret.), of World Court Project UK, said: "With this remarkable decision, I could never have used a nuclear weapon legally. This places a duty on the military to review their whole attitude toward nuclear weapons, which are now effectively in the same category as chemical and biological weapons."

The Court declined to rule on another question brought by the World Health Organization as to whether using nuclear weapons would be a breach of international law in view of environmental and health effects, arguing that it lacked the jurisdiction to do so. But Dr. Victor Sidel, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), commented that "The Court still used the WHO data on the impact of nuclear weapons on health, health services and the environment. So in effect, the decision that nuclear weapons' use is generally contrary to humanitarian international law answers the WHO's question about legality of nuclear weapons."

The Court's opinion in the General Assembly case comes as a blow to the United States, United Kingdom, France and Russia, all of which urged the Court not to consider the case. At a press conference this morning at the UN in New York, Pentagon Papers author and defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg said the Court's decision has a clear application in prohibiting specific actions of the nuclear states, including the US which on occasion has threatened first use of nuclear weapons. "The majority decision of the Court clearly implies that nuclear first-use threats of the kind Defense Secretary Perry and his deputy Kenneth Bacon have made recently against Libya are illegal.

Whatever national interest US officials may see in threatening non-nuclear states, by no stretch can it be seen as what the Court calls 'extreme self-defense' and the Court has ruled such threats effectively out of bounds."

The Court proceeding was initiated by international peace and disarmament groups including the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), International Peace Bureau (IPB) and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which successfully petitioned the World Health Assembly and the United Nations General Assembly to request the opinions from the Court. Representatives of these groups expressed their gratification at today's ruling, and the understanding reflected in Court President Mohammed Bedjaoui's conclusion. In it he argues, " the very nature of this blind weapon has a destabilizing effect on humanitarian law, which regulates discernment of the type of weapon used. Nuclear weapons, the ultimate evil, destabilize humanitarian law which is the law of the lesser evil, not to mention their long-term effects of damage to the human environment, in respect to which the right to life can be exercised."

NOTE TO THE MEDIA -- Video and audio footage of the UN press conference on the World Court decisions, as well as wire photos from the Hague and interviews with experts on the case from inside the Hague, from the US, and from UN delegations, are available on request. For further information, please contact the numbers below.


US Contacts
Alyn Ware or Steve Kent, Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy
phone (212) 674-7790 or (914) 424-8382
fax (212) 674-6199

IALANA secretariat
phone +31-(0)70-3634484
fax +31-(0)70-3455951

Phon van den Biesen, IALANA
phone +31-(0)20-6232605
fax +31-(0)20-6203559
phone +31-(0)20-6274442 (home)

Peter Weiss, IALANA, and Fredrik Heffermehl, IPB, can be reached atthe IALANA secretariat. Rob Green, World Court Project UK, can bereached at +31 70 360 8905.

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