Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2020-2021
By Ian Zabarte
While the United States has actively opposed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and will not be held to its requirements for now, the treaty will be enforced in the states that have had it ratified. The arrival of the treaty is the first time nuclear weapons have been explicitly banned under international law.
Shoshone Nation of Indians and the US
Customary international law is formed when states act in a consistent way based upon a sense of legal obligation. Treaties are intended to preserve the continued existence of the signatory parties. Treaties between Native Americans and the US have the same preservation character. Great Britain did not recognize the United States government until the US was recognized by Native American nations that also had treaties with Great Britain.
In 1863, as the US Civil War raged, the United States sought peace and alliance with the Shoshone Nation of Indians in five treaties. In 1857, prior to the war’s beginning, a US “gold ship” was lost with 21 tons of gold bullion, leading to a serious economic depression. Treaties with the Shoshone Nation of Indians had the purpose of allowing gold to be securely shipped overland to finance prosecution of the war for the benefit of the US. Yet, since the dawn of the nuclear age, the US has secretly “developed” the Nevada National Security Site (formerly called the Nevada Test Site) on Shoshone property and has detonated over 900 weapons of mass destruction dispersing radioactive fallout globally. The Shoshone people would never enter into an agreement that would result in the destruction of the people and land.
A provision of the Hague and Geneva Conventions known as the Martens Clause arguably made nuclear weapons illegal as it identifies “dictates of the public conscience” regarding whether a weapon “not expressly addressed by treaty is nonetheless prohibited or illegal.” Later, the Shoshone Nation contributed to the creation of international opinion on nuclear weapons as expressed in the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the UN’s International Court of Justice or World Court.
For the Shoshone Nation’s part, hundreds of protests took place at the Nevada Test Site and, by 1990, over 30,000 individuals were granted permission by the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians to protest against the bombing. The Shoshone view is that our treaty obligations require aid and comfort to all people, including visitors from the Kazakh Nevada Semipalatinsk Movement and the global anti-nuclear movement. Together they pressured both the World Health Organization in 1993 and the UN General Assembly in 1994 to seek an Advisory Opinion on the Illegality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. The court noted in 1996 that there was no international law that explicitly prohibits the possession, use, or threat of use of nuclear weapons. However, any use of or threat to use nuclear weapons could only be considered lawful under extreme circumstances of self-defense, if then. Until now, none of the previous international resolutions, treaties, or agreements required or enforced the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Through the growing activism of individuals and non-governmental organizations, peace-loving people of the world assert their right to a world without nuclear weapons and rejoice in the 50th state ratification of the treaty ban which enters into force on January 22, 2021. We must continue our effort to pressure the nuclear weapons states to conform to international law.
—Ian Zabarte is Principle Man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians.