In the sphere of international law, they override the entire system through their very existence, which is in total violation of its fundamental precepts. They undermine international law by creating the impression that there is one law for the nuclear-weapon states and another for the non-nuclear-weapon states. In effect, they enable their possessors to tell the non-nuclear-weapon states that they had better behave themselves and not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, for that is a total contravention of international law except when it is done by the nuclear weapon states. They are an open declaration to the world that possession of nuclear weapons is the prerogative of the nuclear powers, who have a legitimate right to possess them and to refine them even further. They have the right to keep them in their arsenals as a threat and a deterrent. They even have the right to proclaim openly that they can use them in a first strike against a nation that is ignoring or violating international law.
International law, which is based on the fundamental premise that there is one law for all nations, is riven down the middle, with one law for the nuclear-weapon states and another for the non-nuclearweapon states. Indeed, the nuclear powers claim the right to enforce international law on the lesser states who seek to acquire nuclear weapons, even though the enforcement is done by those who are the greatest violators of those very rules of international law and even though the enforcement may be done with weapons that are the very negation of the principle that they are seeking to enforce. Such is the logic of the nuclear age.
Nuclear weapons are the most potent factor leading humanity toward the war to end all wars. Nuclear weapons are triggering a macabre competition among nations to increase their potential for planetary destruction. They are acting as a stimulus to terrorists. They are a potential destroyer of all the values built up through more than 5,000 years of human effort and the sacrifice of tens of millions of lives.
In short, the debit side of the ledger on nuclear weapons is filled to capacity and is overflowing with entries too overwhelming and complex to be confined to the written page.
Any attempts to build up any entries on the credit side are a dismal failure, resulting in a page that is totally blank. The value of nuclear weapons as a deterrent or for self defense is sometimes urged as a positive factor, but this claim does not bear examination, for in either case it is meant for actual use and such actual use violates every known principle of humanitarian law. Deterrence is based on the supposition that the possession of the weapon will terrify one's opponents, but one cannot terrify one's opponents into the belief that one will use it if one has no real intention to use it. Deterrence is not a game of bluff but a stockpiling of weapons with a real intent to use them.
The role that nuclear weapons play today is thus a totally negative role. The debit entries pile up virtually to infinity, including possibly Armageddon and the total destruction of all civilization and perhaps all human life. The credit entries are totally non-existent, and the blankness of this side of the ledger is on constant exhibition for all the world to see. In international law, the old phraseology "civilized nations" still continues in some of the principal statutes and charters of international law, including the Statute of the International Court of Justice.
This phraseology dates back to the 19th century, when some nations prided themselves on being civilized, in contradistinction to the rest. Those civilized nations outlawed dum-dum bullets in the 19th century because they were considered too cruel as they explode and cause unnecessary injuries when they enter the human body. Yet, these same civilized nations, and other recruits to this charmed circle, at the dawn of the 21st century see no problem with nuclear weapons, which can exterminate several hundred thousand people in one second and cause lingering injuries to hundreds of thousands more for generations to come.
The absurdity would be apparent to any school child.
For those in the highest seats of power of the civilized nations, this absurdity passes as high government policy, and even more remarkably, this is done with the tacit approval of millions who see the absurdity but do not protest. This is the first century in history that opens with mankind having the power to destroy itself. In prior centuries, humanity could have bungled its affairs and still hoped for another century in which to put its affairs in order. That luxury is no longer available, and we are at the very brink of the abyss.
Judge C. G. Weeramantry is a former vice president of the International Court of Justice. In 1996 he was one of the 14 judges on the court when it rendered its opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons. The court ruled that the threat and use of nuclear weapons was generally illegal, but added that it could not decide whether this illegality applied "in an extreme circumstance of self-defense in which the very survival of a State would be at stake." Weeramantry was one of three judges who dissented from that judgment, arguing that nuclear weapons were illegal in all circumstances.