The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.
International Court of Justice, Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, July 1996
The Basel Peace Office advances the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons as a legal imperative for their abolition.
In 1996 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) examined the humanitarian and environmental impact of the use of nuclear weapons, and determined that such use would, in general, violate the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict including the principles and rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). Such law, which is found in the Geneva and Hague Conventions and Statutes of the international criminal tribunals, and is integrated into the military law manuals of most countries, prohibits weapons or methods of warfare which:
- are indiscriminate, i.e. fail to discriminate between military forces which are legitimate targets and civilians who are not;
- are inhumane, i.e. cause suffering which is unneccessary or that extends far beyond the time span of the conflict;
- are disproporionate, i,.e. with destructive effects much greater than the military acts which provokes the response;
- cause longterm and severe damage to the environment;
- impact on nuetral territory.
Despite being dominated by judges from Nuclear Weapon States and their allies, the ICJ came down strongly on the side of illegality of nuclear weapons after listening to testimony about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons from the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and from survivors of nuclear tests in the Pacific. The testimony of Lijon Eknilang was particularly influential:On the morning of 1 March 1954, the day of the "Bravo" shot, there was a huge, brilliant light that consumed the sky. We all ran outside our homes to see it. The elders said another world war had begun. I remember crying. I did not realize at the time that it was the people of Rongelap who had begun a lifelong battle for their health and a safe environment. Not long after the light from Bravo, it began to snow in Rongelap. We had heard about snow from the missionaries and other westerners who had come to our islands, but this was the first time we saw white particles fall from the sky and cover our village.Of course, in 1954, Marshallese children and their parents did not know that the snow was radioactive fall-out from the Bravo shot.
The most common birth defects on Rongelap and nearby islands have been "jellyfish" babies. These babies are born with no bones in their bodies and with transparent skin. We can see their brains and hearts beating. The babies usually live for a day or two before they stop breathing. Many women die from abnormal pregnancies and those who survive give birth to what looks like purple grapes which we quickly hide away and bury.
My own health has suffered very much, as a result of radiation poisoning. I cannot have children. I have had miscarriages on seven occasions. On one of those occasions, I miscarried after four months. The child I miscarried was severely deformed; it had only one eye. I have also had thyroid surgery to remove nodules. I am taking thyroid medication which I need every day for the rest of my life. Others in my community suffered, as well. Many children and seemingly healthy adults died unexpectedly in the years following Bravo - the reasons for which none of us fully understood at the time. There were strange and strong fevers which killed people and left them mentally retarded.
Lijon Eknilang (Marshall Islands), testimony to the International Court of Justice, November 1995
The ICJ also concluded that there is an unconditional obligation to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons through negotiations on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. Thus, the United Nations General Assembly, which requested the ICJ to consider the issue, has since 1996 called annually for implementation of the ICJ opinion through negotiations that would lead to the conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention, which would prohibit nuclear weapons and provide for their complete elimination under strict and effective international control.
In November 2011, the Council of Delegates of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies adopted a resolution reinforcing the ICJ's conclusion on the inhumanity and illegality of nuclear weapons, and calling on their member societies to take an active role to encourage governments to negotiate the complete prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons under a global treaty.
In October 2012, the government of Switzerland introduced to the United Nations General Assembly a Joint statement on catastrophic humanitarian consequences co-signed by 33 other countries.
The Basel Peace Office is active in a number of initiatives to advance the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons as an imperative for their abolition, including:
- Promoting the Vancouver Declaration on Law's Imperative for the Urgent Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World;
- Holding events such as the International symposium on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons;
- Collaborating with the ATOM Project, led by survivors of Soviet nuclear tests in Kazakhstan, including promotion of the ATOM Project video;
- Informing and engaging parliamentarians on nuclear weapons and international humanitarian law. See International humanitarian law, nuclear weapons and the role of parliamentarians;
- Encouraging governments to support the Swiss government's Joint statement on catastrophic humanitarian consequences;
- Working with Abolition 2000 to encourage governments to support the United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for implementation of the ICJ opinion through negotiations leading to a nuclear weapons convention;
- Circulating the Nuclear Abolition Forum inaugural issue on the application of International Humanitarian Law to nuclear weapons;
- Promoting the Citizen's Affirmation on the Criminality of Nuclear Weapons.