Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2014
By Paul Vos Benkowski
Between 1946 and 1958, the tiny islands that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific were designated the Pacific Proving Grounds where the US tested 67 nuclear weapons. These tests included the largest nuclear test the US ever conducted, dubbed Castle Bravo a 15-megaton device equivalent to a thousand Hiroshima blasts. In 1956, the US Atomic Energy Commission considered the Marshall Islands, “by far the most contaminated place in the world.” Nuclear claims between the US and the Marshall Islands have been ongoing. Health effects from those tests still linger. From 1956 to August 1998 at least $759 million was paid to the islanders in compensation for their exposure to US nuclear testing.
Now the tiny nation is seeking to stop any further nuclear weapons proliferation by bringing a lawsuit against nine nuclear powers. They include the US, Russia, China, France and the UK. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, none of which have signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), also have a nuclear arsenal.
The suit was presented April 24 at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague and claims that the nine countries have violated their binding treaty obligation to pursue the abolition of their nuclear arsenals. In the first suit of its kind, the Marshall Islands has brought nine separate cases, once each against the nine governments. Each suit accuses the nuclear-armed states of a “flagrant denial of human justice.” The suits’ legal rationale lies in the serious ongoing health and environmental effects resulting from the bomb testing. “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,” the country’s foreign minister, Tony de Brum, said in a statement announcing the lawsuits. The country is seeking action, not compensation. It wants the ICJ to require that the nine nuclear powers meet their obligations spelled out in the 1968 NPT.
The NPT is a largely toothless compact that forged an agreement between non-weapons states — who pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons — and nuclear weapons states who agreed to pursue in good faith the disarmament of their nuclear arsenals under Article VI. Article VI reads, in full, “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” According to the Federation of American Scientists, there are presently more than 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Of these, nearly 4,200 warheads are considered operational and nearly 2,000 of these are on high alert, ready to launch.
Although the Marshall Islands’ suit is largely symbolic, it seeks to serve a greater purpose by shining a light on the fact that weapons states are actively “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals in open violation of the NPT. There is also a push in the international community for the NPT to be treated as part of customary international law, so that all states, whether or not they signed the treaty, must adhere. Should the ICJ rule in favor of the Marshall Islands, the NPT would have a legal status similar to that of international bans on slavery, torture and poison weapons. The ICJ could finally give the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty some teeth and hold countries accountable to their promise to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons.
— The Guardian, Apr. 24; Associated Press, Apr. 24; Federation of American Scientists, Apr. 30, 2014