In a landmark case addressing the legality of nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on July 8 unanimously agreed that any use or threat to use nuclear weapons would have to comply with those provisions of the UN Charter which prohibit the use of force except in cases of self-defense, and with the rules of international law applicable to armed conflict. However, a majority of the 14 participating judges (11-3) agreed that in current international law there is no "comprehensive and universal prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons."
The ICJ, known also as the World Court, was responding to a request from the UN General Assembly for a non-binding advisory opinion on whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons was "consistent with international law." In October and November 1995, the court heard arguments from 22 UN member-states (See ACT, February 1996). The United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom unsuccessfully urged the court not to answer the General Assembly's question at all.
The ICJ did, however, refuse to answer a similar question from the World Health Organization, on the grounds that the issue of the legality of nuclear weapons was outside the scope of that body's legitimate activities.
The court split evenly (7-7) on one part of its opinion that combined two questions. When such a split occurs, the president of the court is allowed to cast a second vote to break the tie. The current president, Mohammed Bedjaoui of Algeria, voted to make the decision part of the court's opinion. One part of the decision found that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would "generally be contrary" to the rules of international law, while the second part found that, "in view of the current state of international law," the court could not conclude "definitively" that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be "lawful or w1-lawful in an extreme circumstance of self defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake."
The judges also unanimously decided that "There exists an obligation [in international law] to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament...." In effect, the court declared that Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), from which this language was drawn, was now so widely accepted that it had become part of customary international law, binding even on non-NPT states like India, Israel and Pakistan. By offering new arguments in favor of nuclear disarmament, and extending the reach of NPT Article VI, this may be the most influential part of the court's opinion in the long run.
All sides in the nuclear weapons debate will be able to find comfort somewhere in the opinion. State and Defense department officials have expressed confidence that the ICJ opinion would not require any changes in U.S. nuclear deterrence policy. They noted that the court did not rule against the use of nuclear weapons in reprisal for another state's use of chemical or biological weapons, and they said the court's reference to "extreme circumstances" of self-defense would include situations in which a nuclear-weapon state defended the existence of a non-nuclear ally.