The World Court Project was started in New Zealand in 1986 by a retired Christchurch district court judge, Harold Evans, and initially led by New Zealanders. This civil society campaign aimed to have the International Court of Justice (the highest legal branch of the United Nations, also known as the World Court) give an advisory opinion on the legal status of nuclear weapons. 32,000 New Zealanders signed ‘Declarations of Public Conscience’ condemning nuclear weapons and supporting the World Court Project in the early 1990s. Worldwide, the number was greater than 4 million. This was an enormous figure for public engagement in the age before online mass-petitions.
After years of campaigning at home and abroad, the Project had its international launch at the UN in Geneva in 1992. The three core co-sponsoring organisations were International Peace Bureau (Nobel Peace Prize winner, 1910), International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Nobel Peace Prize winner 1985), and International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms. In response to persistent, strategically-applied pressure and lobbying by World Court Project members, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution in December 1994, requesting the World Court advisory opinion that the activists had been seeking for almost eight years. The General Assembly asked the Court to give its opinion on the question, Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?
New Zealand policy
New Zealand was the only Western-aligned country to vote in favour of the General Assembly resolution calling for a World Court advisory opinion on the legal status of nuclear weapons. In the resulting Court hearings, New Zealand stated that nuclear weapons reduce international security, and that the threat or use of nuclear weapons should not be permitted under international law:
“In New Zealand’s view, the sooner [the threat or use of nuclear weapons are banned], through the progressive development of international law, including the negotiating process, the more secure the international community will be.”
New Zealand Statement to the World Court, 1995.
World Court Project members worked to ensure as many countries as possible made strong arguments in favour of the illegality of nuclear weapons. This included advising many of the governmental legal teams; delivering almost four million ‘Declarations of Public Conscience’ to the Court from individual citizens around the world asserting the inhumane, illegal nature of nuclear weapons; and successfully advocating for the first time ever for the Court to hear evidence from ‘citizen witnesses’ who had personally suffered the effects of nuclear weapons. Many other countries made similar statements to New Zealand, arguing that nuclear weapons are illegal under international law. Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, for example, declared that the use, threat of use, acquisition, development, testing and possession of nuclear weapons are illegal, since ‘nuclear weapons are by their nature illegal under customary international law.’
On 8 July 1996, the International Court of Justice delivered its opinion, entitled “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.” For supporters of disarmament, two key aspects of the 1996 Advisory Opinion were seen as successes. First, the Court found in a split decision (seven judges for, seven against) 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.”
The Court’s judges found unanimously that “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”
Ever since 1996, the New Zealand government has linked this important normative precedent to its more progressive disarmament objectives, advocating strongly for the elimination of nuclear weapons.