Legality of Nuclear Weapons

International Court of Justice

In 1996 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave an advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons. The Court concluded that:

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 (paragraph 2E)

states must never make civilians the object of attack and must consequently never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets (paragraph 78)

The basis of humanitarian law is that parties to any conflict should seek to distinguish between civilian and military targets. This is repeated in the basic rules of the 1949 Geneva Convention.

The Geneva Convention Protocol 1977 prohibits attacks on civilians and methods of warfare which are intended, or may be anticipated, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment (Article 35). The inherent impossibility of distinguishing between civilian and military targets and the obvious fact that the use of nuclear weapons would result in a massive number of casualties in a wide area, clearly renders the use or threat of a nuclear weapons system illegal. It is clear that the use of Trident would result in a massive number of casualties across a wide area.

The use of nuclear weapons would generally breach all of the following declarations and conventions:

  • Declaration of St. Petersburg, 1868, because unnecessary suffering would be caused and there would be no avoidance or minimising of incidental loss of civilian life;
  • Hague Convention, 1907, because unnecessary suffering would be caused and there would be no guarantee of the inviolability of neutral nations;
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, because long-lasting radioactive contamination would interfere with innocent people's right to life and health;
  • Geneva Conventions, 1949, because protection of the wounded, sick, the infirm, expectant mothers, civilian hospitals and health workers would not be ensured;
  • The Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions, 1977, because there would be massive incidental losses of civilian lives and widespread, long-term and severe damage to the environment.


Trident replacement


A legal opinion by Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin, Matrix Chambers, on The Maintenance and Possible Replacement of the Trident Nuclear Missile System concluded that a replacement would constitute a breach of Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and would be a material breach of the treaty itself.

Read Putting Nuclear Weapons on Trial by Angie Zelter for a compehensive analysis of the legality of nuclear weapons