David vs Goliath; Marshall Islands And Nuclear Disarmament

[Opinion] Marshall Islands, a tiny Pacific islands republic, has sought to dramatically change the political scope of minnows like itself, by attempting to force India to court over nuclear disarmament.

Marshall Islands, a Pacific islands republic of less than 70,000 people, has stunned many by attempting to force India, the world’s second-most populous country, to conform to nuclear disarmament, through the jurisdiction of the international courts.

The island nation, which is located in the central Pacific Ocean between the Philippines and Hawaii, has claimed that the world’s nine nuclear weapons states have violated various obligations which require them to negotiate in good faith nuclear disarmament.

The country has a strong history, and an understandable desire, for these larger nations to maintain their commitments to dismantle the nuclear arsenals they hold, as the Marshall Islands lost land in the past to nuclear weaponry, seeing entire islands vaporised by atomic bomb tests. As a United States protectorate until 1986, the islands saw themselves become the test site for 67 nuclear tests by 1958, causing health impacts that continue to linger to this day.

“Several islands in my country were vaporised and others estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years,” Marshallese minister Tony deBrum said of the nuclear weaponry development, “Many died, suffered birth defects never before seen and battled cancer from the contamination.

deBrum, who personally lived through and experienced the nuclear testing on the islands, went on to describe as a nine-year-old boy seeing the sky “aflame” from a test just some 200 miles from his home.

So, as an attempt to stand up against the damage of nuclear testing and push for nuclear disarmament, the country sought in court to force India, the world’s second-most populous country, with a population over seventeen thousand times that of the Marshall Islands, to join the discussions on nuclear disarmament.

However, it’s not just India that the islands’ lawsuit will bring before courts, as due to being bound by previous commitments to respond to cases brought at the International Court of Justice, three of the nine nuclear weapon states – India, Pakistan and Britain – will all be brought before the courtroom. India was the first to be heard, while Pakistan and Britain will be brought up shortly after.

It’s a case that the Marshall Islands, made up of a small chain of Pacific islands with little political clout, will likely loose, and the current rate of nuclear disarmament discussions, or lack of it in many cases, will continue as before. The nuclear programmes of India will be unaffected. So to those of the other eight nations.

Nevertheless, politically, the case will have near seismic repercussions on the way that nations are managed and governed, as while the Marshall Islands’ campaign may be doomed to fail, the dogged campaign of the Marshallese people has highlighted the growing scope and ease for political minnows to get a hearing against much larger political powers through global tribunals.

While the Marshall Islands’ suit may not fail, it may cause large nations – who are used to their sizeable political clout to get them through such disputes with more minor political powers – to come to consider the risks of challenging or exploiting these smaller nations, which will not change historic cases such as those of the Marshall Islands but would likely prevent future situations that could lead to similar suits. It may also force countries into having a greater willingness to give the reparations these countries are owed, and to stick to agreements and obligations that they make far more closely, as there is suddenly a much greater possibility been proven for the smaller political bodies, if upset with the actions of large counterparts, to force through court cases against them.

Countries may see the cases of India, Pakistan and Britain, being called before the courts, and realise that they are now in a political system that allows these legislative minnows to challenge them on failing to meet international agreements to which they are bound; such as the Marshall Islands’ pressure on the declared nuclear states to meet the disarmament negotiation requirements that they are bound to by the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and their pressure for the other, non-declared states to remain true to the similar obligations that customary international law places them under.

However, while India, Pakistan and Britain have been called up before the courts for the nuclear disarmament suit, it was not because of courtesy to the Marshall Islanders’ case, or fear of their ignorance of the nuclear disarmament agreements, but rather due to commitments and obligations with the International Court of Justice. The other nuclear powers in question from the suit – including declared powers China, France, Russia and the United States, as well as undeclared nuclear states Israel and North Korea – have not yet responded to the legal challenge issued by the Marshall Islands.

And they likely never will.

“It is a shame that the other six nuclear armed states have decided that for them there was no need to respond,” lawyer for the Marshall Islands, Phon van den Biesen, said, describing his disappointment at the decision from those, “Once the threshold to the use of nuclear weapons is crossed, the law will be a joke and justice will be just a relic of the past”.

Yet, despite the disappointment and the failure to get all of the nuclear armed states to comply with the legal suit, and the likelihood of the political suit failing in this instance, there was still significant success for the political minnow, in getting three of the much larger, politically-stronger countries to court.

It was progress, progress towards the equality of countries’ political power, towards parity in legislation and international law, and that is indefinitely positive. Progress is an almost universal good, and progress can be built upon.

Categories: Marshall Islands, Opinion

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