Nuclear nations in the dock
By Sue Wareham - posted Monday, 23 February 2015 Sign Up for free
A little known court case initiated by an inconspicuous Pacific Island
state might not seem very newsworthy, but when there’s a David and
Goliath element involving some of the world’s most powerful nations,
with implications for Australia, we should take notice.
The small nation state of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, with a
population of just over 50,000 people, is taking the United States,
the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and
North Korea to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). What do
this motley lot have in common? Between them, they possess the
world’s 16,300 most destructive, horrific and indiscriminate weapons,
No nation has a stronger moral claim to call the nuclear armed states
to account than the Marshall Islands. From 1946 to 1958, the US
conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests there, all the while reassuring the
local people that the tests would “with God’s blessing, result in
kindness and benefit to all mankind”. Instead they resulted in
dispossession, destruction of atolls and long term radioactive
However Marshall Islands’ Foreign Minister Tony de Brum says that the
lawsuit is not about compensation for past wrongs, but is an attempt
to draw attention to the nuclear sword of Damocles still poised over
all of humanity. He reflects the grave concern of many nations. A
recent series of government conferences – in Norway in 2013, Mexico
in early 2014 and Austria in December, the latter attracting 159
governments – has examined the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons,
with the unequivocal conclusion that any use of these weapons would
cause human suffering on an unimaginable scale, far beyond any
capacity for humanitarian response. The impacts on health, the
environment, agriculture, food security, and the economy would be
catastrophic, widespread and long term. There would be no winners.
The Marshall Islands claims that all nine nuclear armed states violate
their legal duty to get rid of their weapons. The claim rests in part
on the 1996 advisory opinion of the ICJ on the legal status of nuclear
weapons, which included the judges’ unanimous declaration that “There
exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion
negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects…….”.
This judgement in turn drew on the disarmament obligation enshrined in
article 6 of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). After
nearly 45 years, and endless platitudes, it remains unfulfilled. The
5-yearly NPT review conference will be held in New York in April;
signs that article 6 will be given the pre-eminent focus it deserves
are not strong.
For Australia, this is anything but a quaint and esoteric legal
exercise, and we are anything but an innocent bystander. Successive
Australian governments pay lip service to the goal of a nuclear
weapons free world, while simultaneously giving support to US nuclear
weapons, under the extraordinarily foolish notion that they protect
us. Goliath, with his genocidal weapons, has our unbridled loyalty
and complicity. We are in fact part of the problem.
The Marshall Islands’ case faces big hurdles in The Hague, including
acceptance of the jurisdiction of the ICJ. However, in the court of
public opinion there is no doubt. Nuclear armed states have escaped
accountability for far too long.
De Brum, along with many other governments, leaders and a large civil
society movement, are urging a new approach - a treaty to ban nuclear
weapons, just as chemical and biological weapons are banned by treaty.
Such an achievement would not be a panacea (for we have none), but it
would be a powerful tool, probably the best available, to delegitimise
the weapons and stigmatise any nation with the deluded belief that it
has a right to retain the worst of all weapons of mass destruction.
There is a sense of urgency about this, which is hardly surprising.
In January the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of
its Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight, the closest they’ve
been to nuclear catastrophe since 1984. Meanwhile, the major nuclear
armed states, meeting in London on 6 February ahead of the NPT review
in April, noted their progress on a glossary of key nuclear terms.
Deck chairs on the Titanic come to mind.
This year marks the 70th anniversaries, in August, of the nuclear
destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an appropriate if somewhat
belated time to act. Decades after their own nuclear nightmares, the
people of the Marshall Islands are to be applauded and supported as
they attempt to holdthe nuclear armed Goliaths accountable for their
flagrant violation of the global norm against weapons of mass
destruction. The message should be heeded by countries such as
Australia, for whom a nuclear alliance blinds us to the possibility of