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Nuclear disarmament case and Marshall Islands

By Saima Ali

The Marshall Islands turned into a member of the United Nations in September 1991. The Marshall Islands upholds embassies in the United States, Fiji, the Philippines, Japan, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). They also maintain consulate in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. Marshall Island pursued a lawsuit against the main player U.S. who carried out 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. The Marshall Islands is appealing to the US Supreme Court after its case against the country was dismissed by a US federal court last year. U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands has deeply affected the country’s sensitivity toward the issue of nuclear weapons.

Marshall Island nuclear disarmament case against India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, has been closely thrown out by United Nations Highest court earlier this month. A bench of 16-judge at the international court of justice (ICJ) ruled there was no proof that the islands’ administration had a previous conflict with any of above mentioned nuclear powers or had sought cooperation on the issue. Marshall Islands filed case against nine nuclear weapon states at the ICJ China, North Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States accusing them of insufficiently “fulfilling their obligations with respect to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

Earlier in March hearing the Marshalls’ lawyers painted a bright picture of the dreadfulness caused by 67 nuclear tests, notably on the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak. A former foreign minister Tony deBrum told the bench in that session, “Several islands in my country were vaporized and others are estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years,” According to him “Moreover, the NPT itself is not a light switch to be turned on and off at convenience — States must be held to full accountability for violations of the Treaty or in abusing withdrawal provisions — a matter of concern for every nation, and the wider global community that defines us all,”

But the ICJ already failed to take up cases against the other countries ─ China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia and the United States ─ as they have not recognized the court’s jurisdiction. Israel has also never formally admitted to having nuclear weapons. The Marshall Islands has maintained that by not stopping the nuclear arms race Britain, India and Pakistan continued to breach their obligations under the treaty — even if New Delhi and Islamabad have not signed the pact.The treaty commits all nuclear weapon states “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”. Majuro is calling for nuclear powers to take “all necessary measures” to carry out what it considers to be their obligations under the treaty. Critics have argued however that the ICJ action is a distraction and that the islanders’ real fight is with Washington, which carried out the tests in their backyard.

They contend that the case has no relation to the victims’ claims for increased compensation, better health care and clean-ups to render the sites habitable again. Experts however say the islands hoped the three cases before the ICJ will thrust nuclear disarmament talks, which have stalled over the past two decades, back into the spotlight. Even if the case has no direct impact, the Marshall Islands’ residents “perhaps feel that the more the difficulties with nuclear weapons are brought to the public consciousness, the better,” said Jens Iverson, assistant professor of Public International Law at Leiden University.

The case is for from a loss for the cause of nuclear disarmament championed by the Marshall Islands. Even while it did not decide to proceed with a consideration of the merits put forward by the Marshall Islands, the ICJ’s ruling reaffirms a non-binding 1996 advisory opinion on nuclear weapons, which found that states ought “to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” Of course, this will stand as a declaratory statement of international law without any enforcement mechanisms, but can ostensibly serve to strengthen the global taboo against nuclear weapons use.

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Saima Ali

Saima Ali is a Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute and can be reached at saima@thesvi.org

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