The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is an island country in the northern Pacific with a population of approximately 70,000 people. For such a small country, it is making big waves. As a country at risk of being submerged due to rising ocean levels, the RMI has played a leadership role in the international conferences concerned with climate change. As a country that suffered 12 years of devastating U.S. nuclear testing, it has also chosen to take action to assure that the no other country suffers the fate its citizens have due to nuclear weapons. It has sued the nine nuclear-armed countries for failing to meet their obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law to negotiate in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament.
The RMI is a bold, courageous country. It may be small, but its leaders are not intimidated by the most powerful countries in the world. It speaks truth to power and it is tackling two of the most critical survival issues of our time. It is acting for its own survival, but also for the future of humanity and other forms of complex life on the planet.
In a July 12, 2014 article in the Guardian, “Why the next climate treaty is vital for my country to survive,” RMI Foreign Minister Tony de Brum wrote, “As I said to the big emitters meeting in Paris, the agreement we sign here next year must be nothing less than an agreement to save my country, and an agreement to save the world.”
In an interview published on the Huffington Post on May 30, 2014, de Brum was asked about what effects the lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries would have on the discourse of nuclear disarmament worldwide. He replied, “It should stimulate intelligent discourse and wise solutions. For what would it gain the world for instance, to be protected from climate change, only to suffer massive destruction from nuclear weapons? All our efforts to be sane about the future must be connected to survival and peace. The right hand cannot be out seeking climate peace while the left is busy waging nuclear war.”
How are we to regard the bold actions of this small country? One way they have been viewed is as quixotic, tilting at windmills. But this misses the point. They are doing what they can to save the world. They are saying, in effect, that power does not have special prerogatives, particularly when the survival of their islands and of all humanity is at stake. They are modelling by their behavior that we all have a stake in these survival issues. If they can speak up, so can we, and the more of us who do speak up, the more likely we will save our planet and ourselves.
I like to think of the lawsuits brought by the Marshall Islands as David pitted against the nine nuclear Goliaths, with the exception that the Marshalls have substituted the courts and the law for a slingshot. Their action is nonviolent, seeking a judicial order to require the nuclear-armed countries to cease modernizing their nuclear arsenals and to begin negotiating for complete nuclear disarmament.
Another way to think about the Marshall Islands is as “The Mouse that Roared.” The RMI is small, but mighty. In the classic Peter Sellers’ movie, a small, fictional country sets out to lose a war against the United States in order to obtain reparations and save itself from bankruptcy. In the case of the Marshall Islands, they hope to win the battle, not for reparations, but for human survival on both the climate change and nuclear abolition fronts.
Finally, it is worth observing that the Marshall Islands is not acting with malice toward the countries that it challenges on climate change or toward those it is suing for failing to meet their legal and moral obligations for nuclear disarmament. In this sense, it is following the old saying, “Friends do not let friends drive drunk.” The big, powerful countries have been driving drunk for too long. The safety of their citizens is also at stake, as is the safety of every inhabitant of the planet, now and in the future.
The Marshall Islands has given humanity a wake-up call. Each of us has a choice. We can wake up, or we can continue our complacent slumber. If you would like to be a hero for nuclear zero, you can support the Marshall Islands at www.nuclearzero.org.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the author and editor of many books on peace and nuclear weapons abolition, including “Speaking of Peace: Quotations to Inspire Action.”