Marshall Islands, a US protectorate until 1986, is trying to press India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom to curb their nuclear programmes.
And it has a very good reason for making this move. In the early days of the Cold War, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs over the Marshall Islands as part of its atomic weapons test programme.
Now, over a half-century later, the small Pacific nation will at last have its day in court.
The island nation has filed nine lawsuits – Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the US – alleging that despite their suffering, the world’s nuclear powers have failed to comply with the terms of the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Britain has signed the NPT, but not India and Pakistan. Together, the three countries are expected to argue that the Marshall Island’s claims are beyond the Hague court’s jurisdiction and should not proceed any further.
Yet activists have said just getting the case to the United Nations was a victory in itself.
While the US has refused to participate, preliminary hearings are underway for the first time at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in what many activists see as a step towards highlighting the issue of nuclear disarmament.
“It’s a shame that the other six nuclear armed states have decided that for them there was no need to respond,” said Phon van den Biesen, a lawyer for the Marshall Islands.
Will this accomplish anything?
The Marshall Islands is pursuing global disarmament as a result of its “particular awareness of the dire consequences of nuclear weapons,” according to court documents.
While it seems unlikely that the lawsuits will result in complete disarmament by world powers, but the hearings show that global tribunals can give a voice – however slight – to small nations.
Also, the International Court of Justice hasn’t issued an opinion on nuclear weapons since 1996. As Dapo Akande, professor of international law at Oxford University, told Reuters: “The success will be in putting the issue back on the agenda. … This is as much as the Marshall Islands can hope for.”
What damage was done by the tests by the US?
Several of its atolls were vaporised entirely. Many people were killed and over the ensuing year, people suffered birth defects never seen before and cancer as a result of contamination.
Tony deBrum, a Marshall Islands representative, said he watched one of the US nuclear tests in his home country as a nine-year-old boy while fishing with his grandfather.
“The entire sky turned blood red,” he told judges.
Bikini Atoll, which hosted 23 nuclear tests, remains uninhabitable. While the descendants of the residents relocated prior to the nuclear testing have long wanted to return to the atoll, residual radiation has forced them to remain in exile.
A 2012 UN report estimates that the atoll suffers from “near-irreversible environmental contamination.”
On the island of Runit, in nearby Enewetak Atoll, the US military constructed a massive concrete dome to house tons of radioactive waste.
Never meant as a permanent fix, the dome now leaks radioactive materials into the surrounding environment.
In 2014, the Two-Way reported on the lasting impact of those tests: “Although islanders were relocated from Bikini and Eniwetok atolls – ground zero for the majority of the tests – three other Marshall atolls underwent emergency evacuations in 1954 after they were unexpectedly exposed to radioactive fallout. The Marshallese say they’ve suffered serious health issues ever since.”
So why isn’t Marshall Islands dragging the US to court?
As the Two-Way reported when the case was filed in 2014, the island chain attempted to file suit against all nine countries believed to possess a nuclear arsenal: “In court documents, the Marshall Islands argues that the 1958 NPT, which did not come into force until 1970, amounts to a compact between nuclear haves and have-nots. Non-weapons states essentially agreed not to try to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for weapons states moving toward disarmament, the Marshalls says.”
Why is India complying?
The ICJ has only admitted three cases against Britain, India and Pakistan because they already recognised the ICJ’s authority.
Despite not having signed the NPT, India and Pakistan had an obligation under “customary international law” to negotiate and eventually reduce their nuclear arsenals.
“Contrary to the obligation to pursue in good faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament… India’s conduct includes the quantitative build-up and improvement of its nuclear arsenal,” deBrum said.