Sometime this year, the International Court of Justice is expected to hear a true David-and-Goliath challenge to the world’s nuclear powers.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), a tiny Pacific Ocean nation of 68,000 people where some 67 U.S. nuclear bomb tests were conducted between 1946 and 1958, last year filed lawsuits with the Court, at The Hague, Netherlands, calling out the world’s nine nuclear powers for failing to negotiate to end the nuclear arms race and achieve across-the-board nuclear disarmament. Hearings are expected this year.
The lawsuits point out that the U.S., Russia, United Kingdom, France and China, when they signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), pledged to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race and to nuclear disarmament….”
The RMI also says Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have the same obligations under customary international law, though they have not signed the NPT – or in North Korea’s case, have withdrawn from the treaty. Israel has never confirmed that it has nuclear arms, but it is universally understood to have such weapons.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, which is supporting the suits, says over 16,000 nuclear weapons still exist worldwide, 94 percent of them in U.S. or Russian hands, despite agreements like the New START treaty the two nations signed in 2010 to reduce their arsenals.
Despite the severe environmental damage the RMI suffered from the tests, and the illness and birth defects that have plagued its people, the island nation is not seeking monetary compensation.
In filing the lawsuits at The Hague, RMI Foreign Minister Tony de Brum said, “Our people have suffered the catastrophic and irreparable damage of these weapons, and we vow to fight so that no one else on earth will ever again experience these atrocities.”
Rick Wayman, Director of Programs and Operations at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, said the proceedings against the five signers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty “are explicit in regard to Article VI of the treaty. The Marshall Islands is not seeking anything new, it is simply seeking fulfillment of promises already made.”
Wayman said the lawsuits also contend that though Article VI requires an end to the nuclear arms race, the arms race “is actually ramping up, in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation says the U.S., with nearly half the world’s nuclear arms, is expected to spend $1 trillion to modernize its arsenal over the next three decades.
The RMI filed its lawsuits last April. The International Court of Justice, also called the World Court, is the primary judicial branch of the United Nations.
One issue in the court proceedings is that only the UK, India, and Pakistan have accepted the court’s compulsory jurisdiction. The other countries must choose whether to accept its jurisdiction in a particular case. So far, only China has replied, saying it will not accept jurisdiction in regard to the RMI’s suit.
Many question whether the court proceedings will bring concrete results. Besides the need for most of the nuclear powers to state their willingness to accept the World Court’s jurisdiction in the case, the court itself doesn’t have the power to enforce its decision.
But supporters say the RMI’s action is aimed at greatly increasing global concern about the continuing threat posed by weapons which, if used even in small numbers, would have profound environmental and human consequences, including crop failures and global nuclear famine with the potential to kill some 2 billion people.
In October, nearly 90 leaders from around the world addressed an Open Letter to RMI President Christopher Loeak and Foreign Minister de Brum.
“Win or lose in the coming legal arguments,” the letter said, “what you, and any who join you, will do has the deepest moral significance, going far beyond the specific interests of any country or government and beyond the usual calculations of national self-interest…. If you stay the course, alone or with a host of others, then what you will be doing is – to recycle a phrase already well-used -‘not so much making history, as making history possible.'”
Signers include South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nobel Peace Laureates Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Jody Williams of the U.S., and Shirin Ebadi of Iran. Also Marylia Kelley, Tri-Valley CAREs; Alice Slater, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation; Alfred Marder, U.S. Peace Council president; Tadatoshi Akiba, former mayor of Hiroshima; and Helen Caldicott, M.D., founder, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Australia.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has launched a petition supporting the Marshall Islands’ lawsuits, and calling on the nuclear powers to “fulfill their moral duty and legal obligation to begin negotiations for complete nuclear disarmament.”
Photo: Activists in Mumbai protest nuclear energy. | JapanTimes