Tiny Marshal Islands Drag 3 Nuclear World Powers – UK, India And Pakistan To Court

Richa Verma

March 19th, 2016

Image Courtesy: npr

This is a unique and unlikely mission undertaken by the Marshall Islands which constitute a small group of islands in the Pacific Archipelago. It is campaigning for global nuclear disarmament and suing India, Pakistan and the UK in the International Court of Justice. On the other hand, the three countries might argue that this legal proceeding is beyond the jurisdiction of the international tribunal.


Reason behind this mission:
The Marshall Islands were ruled by the United States of America till 1979 and gained independence in 1986. The islands were used as testing grounds for 67 nuclear tests by the US in the 40s and 50s. To be specific Bikni and Eniwetok atolls were the experimental labs for those nuclear tests.. Reportedly, they were exposed to radioactive fallout. The people of the islands still suffer from the after effect of the nuclear tests.

“I can just go down the list of my wife’s family. You don’t even have to go that far and almost every Marshall islander out here can do this. My wife’s mother died of cancer of the uterus; my wife’s uncle died of thyroid cancer,” Jack Niedenthal, trust liaison for the People of Bikini Atoll, said.

Consequently, they are trying to put pressure on India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom to curb their nuclear programmes. The three countries are being sued in the UN International Court of Justice on the plea that they have not adhered to their obligation of conducting negotiations for nuclear disarmament.


The legal argument of the Marshall Islands:
According to the Islanders, UK is obligated to do this because it has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Although India and Pakistan are not signatories to the NPT, the Marshall Islands believe that the principle of nuclear disarmament is supposed to be considered as a customary law because it is well-enshrined in international law.

The legal documents submitted in the international court contain the argument by the Marshall Islands that the NPT (1968, enforced in 1970) was supposed to be a “compact between nuclear haves and have-nots”.  While the non-nuclear weapons states had agreed that they would not try to acquire nuclear weapons, the nuclear states had relented that they would progressively move towards disarmament.

However, only three nations, that is, India, Pakistan and the UK had committed that they would respond to legal proceedings brought against them in the International Court of Justice. Consequently, only these three nations have cases against themselves still in process. While preliminary hearings against India began on Monday at the headquarters of the ICJ in Hague, there will be sessions on Pakistan and the UK in the coming weeks.


Why is the US not being sued?
After all, the US was actually responsible for the woes due to testing of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the Marshall Islands had tried to do so in 2014. In fact, as reported by the Two-Way, the Islands had tried to file law suits against all nine countries of the world which are believed to possess nuclear weapons – US, China, Russia, France, and the UK (they had signed the NTP) along with those which had not signed the NPT, that is, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. Israel has till date not acknowledged that it possesses nuclear weapons.


Significance of the legal proceeding:
Reuters opines, “Nobody expects the Marshall Islands to force the three powers to disarm.” Still the very fact that a small archipelago is pursuing this mission underlines the scope for politically minor countries to have a hearing through international tribunals.

“The success will be in putting the issue back on the agenda … This is as much as the Marshall Islands can hope for,” said Dapo Akande, professor of international law at Oxford University. If the tiny islands approach the ICJ, it becomes equal to India and Britain. Otherwise, usually big countries do not pay attention to disputes into which they are dragged.

It is to be noted that the International Court of Justice last issued an opinion on nuclear weapons in 1996. As such, the very fact that these three countries will have to answer the summons of the ICJ spells a victory in itself.


The Logical Indian hails the Marshall Islands for doggedly pursing this noble cause!! It would set an example to be emulated by smaller countries to get a hearing on their issues through international legal platforms. This is essential for the interests of smaller countries otherwise ignored.

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