By: Leila Nadya Sadat

Today is the International Day of Peace at the United Nations.  It is celebrated with a theme, with meetings, with videos, and is undertaken each year with a view to bringing the voice of peace into the halls of the United Nations during the Organization’s plenary opening sessions each year.  It is a beautiful event.

I had the opportunity to be present the day before to moderate an important event entitled “Completing the Legacy of Nuremberg: Activating the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over the crime of aggression in 2017”.  The meeting was convened by the Permanent Mission of the Principality of Liechtenstein to the United Nations, and featured remarks by the Foreign Ministers of Lichtenstein and Costa Rica, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.  Former Nuremberg Prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz could not attend, having been opportuned by Hurricane Irma’s untimely and tempestuous appearance, but sent his best wishes and encouragement.

The meeting was well-attended with many governments and NGOs taking the floor.  The overall sentiment of the room was that the aggression amendments are an important element of completing the Rome Statute, and should be activated promptly in December when the ICC Assembly of States Parties is in session. Divisions amongst States remained regarding the jurisdictional regime, with the UK and France urging that ICC States Parties needed to “opt in” to the regime and others asserting that ICC States Parties needed to “opt out” of the aggression amendments, if they did not want to bound by them.  All States attending, however, seemed eager to resolve these differences and show their support for the Court. Earlier that day, an important new treaty was opened for signature, the treaty banning nuclear weapons, a treaty supported by 122 countries, but no NATO members, all of whom refused to attend the negotiations except for The Netherlands, which attended, called for a vote, and then voted “no.”

U.S. President Donald Trump addressing the UN General Assembly, September 19, 2017 (Source: UN Photos/Kim Haughton)

In spite of the progress the meeting and the adoption of this new treaty represented, however, a shadow hung over the room, and the United Nations more generally.  It was, alas, the shadow of the mushroom cloud. For in the halls of that organization, the only place in the entire world in which every nation in the world can come, and in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “meet and talk,” the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, had just the day before threatened to “totally destroy” an entire country.

Of course, Trump could have been employing a figure of speech, but it seems unlikely. Just days before, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations had noted that the U.S. military were looking at their options, and Trump had threatened “fire and fury” earlier in the summer. “Destroy” means to “end the existence of something by damaging or attacking it,” or to “defiant (someone) entirely.” It’s not an ambiguous term, and Trump has subsequently doubled down on it.

Trump’s speech violates international law, not just the niceties of international diplomacy. Article 2(4) of the Charter condemns the “threat” as well as the “use” of force, as the International Court of Justice noted in its Advisory Opinion on the Legality of Nuclear Weapons has observed.  Threats that escalate potentially volatile situations are not only unhelpful, as they are unlikely to calm the nerves of the leaders of would be victim States (and may even provoke them to action), but are unlawful.  As a Head of State, Trump engages the international responsibility of the United States of America.  In other words, we the people, are technically legally responsible for, even if opposed to, his actions.

Threats accompanied by action are even more problematic. Any first strike by the United States against North Korea at this time would undoubtedly violate the UN Charter, and constitute an act of aggression as defined in Article 8bis of the International Criminal Court Statute.  Any military action taken with the aim of “destroying” an entire country of 25 million people would also presumably involve the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and, potentially, genocide, as well.

The appalling tenor of the 45th President’s speech taken in context with his other remarks, and the upset it caused not only at the United Nations itself but throughout the world is why Justice Weeramntry wrote, in his separate and Dissenting Opinion in the Nuclear Weapons case, that the “existential threat” of the mushroom cloud is one of the evils of nuclear weapons and why they should be per se unlawful.  He noted that this threat “pervades all thoughts about the human future [and hangs] . . . like a blanket of doom over the thoughts of children in particular, is an evil in itself and will [be so as] long as nuclear weapons remain.”

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has recently set the Doomsday Clock to two and one-half minutes to midnight. On this international day of peace, world leaders need to re-commit themselves and their governments to the international rule of law.

To learn more, see my most recent essay, “The Urgent Imperative of Peace” in Seeking Accountability for the Unlawful Use of Force (Leila Nadya Sadat, ed., Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2017).