Nuclear Weapons

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 281

Weapons of mass destruction that are powered by nuclear reaction. Types of nuclear weapons include atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, fission bombs, and fusion bombs.

The actions of countries in times of war are governed by INTERNATIONAL LAW that constantly changes with advancements in weapons technology. There is not, however, an international law that specifically addresses the use of nuclear weapons. The Geneva Conventions, in 1949, outlined rules to protect populations during armed conflict. They require distinguishing between civilians and soldiers, and prohibit indiscriminate methods of attack that are not directed at a specific military target. The conventions also prohibit weapons that cause unnecessary injury and those that cause long-term and severe environmental damage. Specific types of weapons are not mentioned. Many believe that given the extremely destructive power of nuclear weapons, they should be specifically prohibited. These critics contend that the use of nuclear weapons clearly violates international humanitarian law regarding armed conflict.

To clarify this issue, the United Nations General Assembly asked the INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE (ICJ) for an ADVISORY OPINION regarding the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The opinion of the ICJ, handed down on July 8, 1996, is the most authoritative statement regarding the legality of nuclear weapons under international law. The ICJ concluded unanimously that the threat or use of such weapons should be consistent with existing international laws. The ICJ did not declare such weapons specifically illegal, but did state that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, leaving the issue of SELF-DEFENSE open.

Advocates of nuclear disarmament contend that based on this ruling of the ICJ, the threat or use of nuclear weapons violates U.S. as well as international law. Article VI of the United States Constitution states, "all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land." The reasoning is that since the threat or use of nuclear weapons violates international treaties that the United States has signed and ratified (e.g., the GENEVA CONVENTION), then the threat or use of these weapons should be illegal.

Since the ICJ opinion was delivered in 1996, direct actions...

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