By John LaForge
Two major judicial decisions on nuclear weapons policy came down this autumn. On October 5 the International Court of Justice or UN World Court dismissed a suit filed by the Marshall Islands against the world’s nuclear-armed governments alleging that the eight declared nuclear weapons states and Israel are in open violation of international law by ignoring their binding legal obligation to abolish nuclear weapons. The provisions of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) include a promise to end the arms race “at an early date” and to negotiate a treaty on “complete disarmament.”
The suit by the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI)—a nation of Pacific islands and atolls that was devastated by 67 US nuclear bomb tests—also asked the World Court to establish a timetable within which to pursue the NPT’s promised ban on nuclear weapons. The NPT applies to the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, and hundreds of nonnuclear states. Three countries with nuclear weapons that have not adopted the NPT—Israel, India, Pakistan (and North Korea which withdrew from it)—are still obliged to eliminate nuclear weapons under customary international law, according to attorneys for the RMI.
“All the nuclear weapons states are modernizing their arsenals instead of negotiating, and we want the court to rule on this,” said Phon van den Biesen, the leader of the RMI’s legal team, to the New York Times.
But the World Court’s president Ronny Abraham said the Marshal Islanders suit had not proved that an actual dispute existed between the RMI and the nuclear-armed states. The court’s judges ruled 9-to-7 to dismiss the suit. Conversely, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in California has agreed that a separate lawsuit—filed solely against the United States by the Marshallese in US federal district court—could move forward.
UN Votes to start nuclear weapons treaty ban talks
While the main thrust of the suit was thrown out by the divided court, the Republic’s demand that negotiations be scheduled for a nuclear weapons ban treaty was taken up by the General Assembly separately.
In sharp contrast to the World Court’s decision, 123 nations voted October 27 at the UN Committee for Disarmament to move forward in 2017 with negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. The global campaign for a “ban treaty” is modeled on the grass roots efforts to ban land mines (completed in 1997), and cluster munitions (banned in 2008). Treaty bans also apply to biological weapons (1972) and chemical weapons (1993).
As Alice Slater reported for The Nation, for the first time ever, China broke ranks with the nine-state nuclear terror club by voting with 16 other states—along with India and Pakistan—to abstain. North Korea, a state regularly denigrated as “unstable” and “irrational” voted Yes in support of negotiations going forward to outlaw nuclear weapons. Israel joined 38 other countries in voting against the resolution. The Netherlands also abstained, the only NATO member to break ranks with the alliance. (Five NATO states still deploy about 180 US nuclear weapons in Europe.)
The negotiations will start to move forward in March 2017, just as a 20-week-long campaign of nonviolent resistance kicks off near the Buchel Air Force Base in Germany. Buchel is an airstrip where German Tornado jets and their pilots train to deliver the remaining 20 US H-bombs still deployed there. The base has been the object of a 20-year-long anti-nuclear effort to rid Germany of the US nuclear bombs.
“A threat mostly to ourselves”
Abolitionists can take encouragement in their efforts from the number of former nuclear weapons proponents that have been converted to nuclear disarmament advocates thanks to the movement’s long-standing drumbeat. General George L. Butler, a retired commander of all US nuclear weapons at Strategic Air Command (now StratCom), broke the mold in a 1998 newspaper interview saying, “… nuclear weapons are a pernicious anachronism, and they are the greatest threat to our survival.” Anti-Soviet hard-liner and Reagan presidential adviser Paul Nitze followed suit in 1999 calling nuclear weapons “A threat mostly to ourselves.”
Gen. James Cartwright, a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander at StratCom, chaired a blue ribbon nuclear weapons study group in 2012. Its final report declared, “No sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face …. In fact, nuclear weapons have on balance arguably become more a part of the problem than any solution.”
Likewise, Lt. General James Kowalski, Vice Commander of StratCom, said in 2014, “The greatest threat to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”
In his new book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford Security Studies 2016) former Secretary of Defense William Perry echoes these warnings, declaring, “[N]uclear weapons no longer provide for our security—they now endanger it.”