This article was originally published by Embassy.
The radioactive fallout came down like snow on the island of Rongelap in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
It was March 1, 1954, and Castle Bravo—a nuclear device one thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima—had just been detonated less than 100 miles away. “We kids were playing in the powder, having fun, but later everyone was sick and we couldn’t do anything” said Lijon Eknilang, a survivor who was eight at the time. After two and a half days, the United States military evacuated the residents of Rongelap to another Marshallese island.
Six decades later, on April 24, 2014, the RMI filed landmark lawsuits at the International Court of Justice in The Hague against all nine nuclear-armed states for the blatant, continued breach of their nuclear disarmament obligations. Cited were states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—the United States, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom—plus India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
The allegation in the lawsuits? Breach of Article VI of the NPT, which mandates states to “pursue negotiations in good faith” toward nuclear disarmament. Even the four states outside the NPT framework are under the obligation to disarm, says the plaintiff, as the norm against the possession of nuclear weapons has become entrenched in customary international law.
The continued possession and modernization of nuclear arsenals constitutes a clear and constant threat to life on Earth. Awareness is growing that the risk posed by the current 16,300 nuclear weapons is exacerbated by deteriorating relations between the top nuclear powers―the United States and Russia―which together account for roughly 95 per cent of existing weapons.
In each of the ICJ lawsuits, the RMI contends that “the long delay in fulfilling the obligations enshrined in Article VI of the NPT and customary international law constitutes a flagrant denial of human justice.” The RMI seeks no compensation, only prompt, tangible progress toward nuclear abolition.
A second lawsuit was filed in US Federal District Court in San Francisco against the United States. It related to the 12 years between 1946 and 1958 when the United States detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the RMI. All nuclear detonations were conducted while the United States administered the RMI as a United Nations Trust Territory, with a clear mandate to act in the best interests of the inhabitants and of international peace and security.
According to a 2012 report from Calin Georgescu, special rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council, the “devastating adverse impact” of those nuclear detonations on the health and ecosystem of the RMI continues to this day.
Last month the US Federal Court lawsuit was dismissed. On Feb. 3, Judge Jeffrey White determined that allegations that the United States failed to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had no legal merit. At the same time, the path for the nine lawsuits before the ICJ is cluttered with legal technicalities and procedural hurdles—such as which countries might recognize the jurisdiction of the court.
This is the first time the ICJ has been asked to address issues relating to nuclear weapons since its 1996 advisory opinion that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.” However the court rules, the effort by the RMI to hold nuclear armed states accountable is worthy of support in Canada and beyond.
Canada recognizes the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction and has historically aligned with the rule of law. Moreover, thousands of Canadians supported the World Court Project that led to the ICJ 1996 advisory opinion.
The RMI’s initiative has been likened to David and Goliath, the “mouse that roared” and a “near-quixotic venture.” However it is seen, it contributes to nuclear disarmament efforts. The lawsuits serve to return focus to the legal obligations relating to nuclear disarmament and to ensure that the ICJ’s 1996 opinion is not allowed to lie dormant and ignored.
In the end, the Marshallese can rightfully claim a victory on the day they filed lawsuits against nuclear-armed states. They have taken concrete, creative action to pressure these states to move decisively toward the universal goal of nuclear abolition. They know that they are in the right, whatever the courts may decide.
While the lawsuits alone will not bring about a world without nuclear weapons, they are clearly helping to pave the way there.
Cesar Jaramillo is program officer at Project Ploughshares, a member organization of the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Debbie Grisdale sits on Project Ploughshares’ governing committee representing the Anglican Church of Canada. More information can be found at nuclearzero.org.