The public conscience in action

IssueMay 2005
Comment by George Farebrother

It is outrageous that the nuclear weapons club still tries to ensure security by threatening to incinerate and irradiate enormous millions. This does not match the way most of us try to live. Nuclear weapons violate our values. When we believe something is outrageous we want it to be unlawful as well.

The concept of the “public conscience” links law and values. Our sense of justice says that all human beings matter and they should not suffer or die fortuitously, just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The public conscience is codified in the Hague and Geneva Conventions and is recognised as an important source of international humanitarian law which imposes important legal restrictions on the means of warfare.

Legally obliged

A group of lawyers, peace activists and medical workers made the link between law and values in the late 1980s and founded the World Court Project, which lobbied for the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons. In 1996 the Court concluded that any use of nuclear weapons must obey the rules of international humanitarian law. They must not kill civilians indiscriminately or cause unnecessary suffering and they must be proportionate to the military need and not affect neutral states: an impossible legal needle for the nuclear camel to pass through -- no known nuclear weapon can meet these stringent tests.

What is more the Court declared that negotiations must be started to rid the world of the nuclear menace. This is a legal obligation on all states, backed by the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty which says that the 188 signatories, including the UK, are obliged to negotiate their abolition.

Sign up for peace

The World Court Project is now collecting declarations for a nuclear-free world. These will be prominently displayed in New York this month when the worlds leaders gather at the UN to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. These declarations are not petitions; they are personal commitments demanding that the promise of a nuclear-free world is fulfilled. You, as a citizen can sign a declaration. You don't have to be a legal expert to do this any more than you need to be a plumber to recognise a leaky pipe. Thousands of nuclear weapons are still ready to be used at a moments notice. They threaten millions of us with annihilation by blast, fire and radiation. They are totally indiscriminate. They are simply wrong as well as illegal.

If you've not signed a declaration yet you can do so online by going to Alternatively you can be sent paper copies of the declarations by using the contact details below. Please pass this message on to your friends and networks. The deadline is 29 April when a World Court Project team will leave for New York with the declarations. Yours can be among them.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons