IN FOCUS

 
Published: Sunday 31 December 1995

Fifty years after Hiroshima, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is now hearing arguments on whether there can be a circumstance in which any country can legitimately be allowed to use a nuclear weapon against another. The arguments have been polarised between the nuclear haves and have-nots. And as with any other precious thing, the haves are refusing to let go.

This is an unusual case, in fact. Some feel it is a purely theoretical exercise. Others hold that this concerns the future of humanity. But more than anything else, the case is unusual because it has not been brought about by feuding governments, but through the action of private citizens.

Nearlya decade ago, a group of lawyers opposed to nukes decided to organise sympathetic governments into a coalition at the UN General Assembly and the World Health Organization (WHO). Aided by scientists and pressure groups, they managed to persuade majorities in both the bodies to request the ICJ to adjudicate on this. And though the decision will not be legally binding, it could in future form the basis for action by the General Assembly and the WHO. America and Britain stead- fastly maintained that nukes could be used legitimately, and the British Attorney General reminded the Courfof"the sombre but vital role played...in support of international security over the last 50 years." He held that it could be used for the "conquest...of the most brutal and enslaving character". But, says Peter Weiss, an antinukes lawyer from New York, "Its a win-win situation." If ICJ says nukes are legal, there'd be tremendous pressure from non-nuclear states for a convention banning them. And "if the court says the weapons are illegal, many states will ignore the ruling, which could lead to perhaps an even greater effort to force the adoption of a convention." The hearings are on.

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