Nuclear weapons, together with biological and chemical weapons, are all categorized as weapons of mass destruction (as opposed to conventional weapons).

The term “nuclear weapons” is generally applied to the atomic bomb (A-bomb, whose effect depends on the rapid fission of the uranium or plutonium atom), the hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb (H-bomb, which uses the energy released by the fission of hydrogen isotopes at a very high temperature) and the neutron bomb (N-bomb, which causes minor material damage than the other two bombs, but whose radiation effects are more lethal).

There is no comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons, but only partial prohibitions, as follows: 

  1. the prohibition to test, use, manufacture, produce, acquire, receive, stockpile, install, locate and possess nuclear weapons in a stated region
  • Latin America: Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America (Treaty of Tlatelolco), Mexico, 14 February 1967
  • Africa: African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba), South Africa, 2 June 1995
  1. the prohibition to place nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction on the bottom of the seas and oceans and in their subsoil
  • Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil thereof, London, Moscow and Washington, 10 April 1971
  1. the prohibition to place in orbit around the earth and other celestial bodies devices carrying nuclear weapons or to place them on the surface or in the subsoil of the moon or other celestial bodies
  • Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, London, Moscow and Washington, 27 January 1967
  • Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, UN General Assembly, Resolution 34/68, 5 December 1979  

On 8 July 1996, the International Court of Justice issued an Advisory Opinion concerning the legality of nuclear weapons. The Court noted the absence of a conventional prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons, but opined that the use of nuclear weapons must comply with the rules and principles of IHL, including the principle of distinction, proportionality and the prohibition of superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering. The ICJ has faced criticism for its ambiguous conclusions that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules and principles of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles of international humanitarian law,” while at the same time claiming that it could not “conclude definitively whether the threat of use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.” 

See Means of warfare; Weapons; Conventional weapons; Conduct of hostilities; Fundamental principles of IHL





Suggested reading:   BARRILLOT Bruno & RICHARD Claudine-Mariko, Les armes à uranium appauvri : jalons pour une interdiction, Brussels, Complexe, 2001, 105 pp.   BOISSON DE CHAZOURNES, Laurence & SANDS Philippe (eds), International Law, the International Court of Justice and Nuclear Weapons, Cambridge, CUP, 1999, 592 pp.   CRAWFORD James, “Legal Aspects of a Nuclear Weapons Convention”, in African Yearbook of International Law, Vol. 6, 1998, pp. 153-179.   KOPPE Erik, The Use of Nuclear Weapons and the Protection of the Environment During International Armed Conflict, Portland, Hart Publishing, 2008, 447 pp.   MEYROWITZ Henri, “La stratégie nucléaire et le Protocole additionnel I aux Conventions de Genève de 1949”, in RGDIP, Vol. 83/4, 1979, pp. 905-961.   SUR Serge (ed.), Le droit international des armes nucléaires : journée d’études, Paris, Pedone, 1998, 206 pp.   “Special Issue: The Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legality of Nuclear Weapons and International Humanitarian Law”, in IRRC, No. 316, February 1997, p. 3 ff (articles of CONDORELLI Luigi, DAVID Éric, DOSWALDBECK Louise and GREENWOOD Christopher). Further reading:   BRING Ove E. & REIMAN H.B., “Redressing a Wrong Question: The 1977 Protocols Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Issue of Nuclear Weapons”, in NetherlandsInternational Law Review, Vol. 21, 1986, pp. 99-105.   BURTON Jeremy T., “Depleted Morality: Yugoslavia v. Ten NATO Members and Depleted Uranium”, in WisconsinInternational Law Journal, Vol. 19/1, pp 17-40.   FALK Richard A., “The Shimoda Case: A Legal Appraisal of the Atomic Attacks upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, in AJIL, Vol. 59, 1966, pp. 759-793.   GARCIA RICO Elena del Mar, El uso de las armas nucleares y el derecho internacional: análisis sobre la legalidad de su empleo, Madrid, Tecnos, 1999, 191 pp.   GRADITZKY Thomas, “La licéité de l’emploi des armes nucléaires et la protection de l’environnement”, in L’observateur des Nations Unies, Vol. 2, 1997, pp. 23-38.   SCHWARZENBERGER Georg, The Legality of Nuclear Weapons, London, Stevens & Sons, 1958, 61 pp.   SINGH Nagendra, Nuclear Weapons and International Law, London, Stevens & Sons, 1959, 267 pp.