When elephants fight, runs an African proverb, it is the grass that suffers. Last fall, forty nonnuclear nations went before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, requesting what one Egyptian lawyer delicately called "legal limits on the freedom of the elephants": an unprecedented declaration that the use or threat of nuclear weapons amounts to a violation of international law. The World Court's ruling was expected any day as we went to press.
Chances are the Court's "advisory opinion" will be greeted in this country with cynical shrugs in the State Department and the peace movement alike. After all, governments including the United States routinely ignore the Court when it suits them. And fifty years of international declarations did little to stem the arms race; it was in 1946 that the United Nations General Assembly first called for "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons."
But there are reasons to consider this instance a little differently, whatever its outcome. The World Court case marks the first great revolt of the nonnuclear nations. For decades, the five declared nuclear powers--the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France--have settled matters by treaties within their own club, treaties that, as State Department lawyer Michael Matheson bluntly reminded the Court, "do not recognize" any obligation "to refrain from using nuclear weapons." This case is no conventional judicial pleading or diplomatic gesture; rather, the nonnuclear nations are at last pounding on the walls of that clubhouse demanding an end to the life-threatening business inside. "Five countries cannot arrogate to themselves forever the exclusive privilege of having their fingers on the nuclear trigger," as Tan Sri Razali Ismail of Malaysia told the Court.
The case also marks a useful example of what has been called the "Lilliput Strategy" for movements seeking to influence governments or corporations holding a seeming monopoly on global power. In 1986, Princeton international law professor (and Nation editorial board member) Richard Falk first floated the idea of obtaining a World Court opinion to antinuclear activists from New Zealand. Those activists, in turn, approached a handful of transnational disarmament groups--the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms and others--that in 1992 formed the World Court Project, eventually joined by more than 700 organizations from around the world. …