The residents of the Marshall Islands are the ultimate modern age victims. If they don’t die from cancer inflicted by nuclear testing they will drown from rising sea levels caused by climate change.
Like most victims, they sought justice. But the International Court of Justice at The Hague refused it on what was effectively a diplomatic-cum-legal technicality.
The Marshall Islands — population 54,000 — are two parallel strings of islands covering 750,000 square miles of the South Pacific. Their best known piece of real estate is Bikini Atoll. In the aftermath of World War Two, the United States was given responsibility for administering and looking after the welfare of the islanders.
It did this by exploding 67 nuclear devices on Bikini Atoll and other parts of the Marshall Islands. Over a 12-year period the US exploded the equivalent of 200 kilotons a day. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons.
The islanders contend that all nuclear weapons states are responsible for their bitter legacy. Why?
Because Article IV of the 1968 Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty commits signatories 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, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
Last year, the Marshall Islands brought cases against all nine nations that have declared or are believed to have nuclear weapons — the United States, Russia, China, France, Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom — for failing to uphold their “obligations” to negotiate for nuclear disarmament as required under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But only the cases against India, Pakistan and the UK proceeded because the rest of the nations do not recognize the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction.
However, the three key defending states pulled a technicality out of their collective legal hat.
Without bothering to argue the merits of the islanders’ case, they moved to have it thrown out on the basis that the Marshall Island diplomats had inadequately negotiated with them before going to court.
In the case involving Britain the judges voted eight to eight and the president of the court was forced to use his tie-breaker. He sided with the UK. India and Pakistan fared slightly better with a nine to seven vote in their favor.
here are some signs that the Marshall Islands case has invigorated the international anti-nuclear weapons lobby. A six-nation coalition of Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa, are climbing on the islands diplomatic shoulders to press for a UN General Assembly resolution for “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.”
For the Marshall Islanders that is small consolation as they have been denied the right of appeal. But then they have more pressing problems as raw sewage floats into their kitchen sinks, salt water renders fresh water supplies undrinkable and the cassava and bread fruit crops wither and die. For the Marshall Islanders climate change is not a debating point but an all too real living nightmare.
As a career diplomat and then three-times foreign minister, Tony de Brum has devoted his life to the war against nuclear weapons and saving his nation from a watery grave. He is universally acclaimed as the man who saved the Paris climate change talks by pulling together a coalition of 100 countries that ultimately included the EU, Canada and the United States — a major accomplishment for any diplomat, let alone one that represents the seventh smallest nation in the world.
De Brum also negotiated A 1983 agreement with Washington that gives the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands the right of abode in America and thousands have turned their backs on a sinking tropical island paradise to set up communities in Arkansas, Oregon, and Washington state. And finally, under the Paris Climate Change Accords, The US government is pledged to set aside $3 billion for the victims of climate change. “We will be first in line,” De Brum said.
He wants the money spent on breakwaters and desalination plants to protect water supplies. But it would seem unlikely that even the indefatigable De Brum can hold back the waves. And unless a way can be found to hold back the seas the rest of the islanders will soon follow their compatriots to the American mainland — the world’s first radioactive climate change refugees.