Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The Marshall Islands were the site of the United States' infamous Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb test, among many others, in the 1940s and 1950s. (Photo: US Department of Defense/Wikimedia/cc.)

Small Island Nation Takes Superpowers to Court over Nukes

Three of the Marshall Islands' lawsuits, alleging nuclear weapons arsenals violate international law, moved forward in international court on Monday

Nika Knight Beauchamp

Decades after parts of its territory were "vaporized" by United States nuclear testing, the Republic of the Marshall Islands on Monday launched an international court battle against nuclear superpowers.

The Pacific island country has sued nine nations for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed in 1970, and now three of those lawsuits are proceeding in the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Britain, India, and Pakistan have agreed to take part in the proceedings. The other defendants—the U.S., France, Russia, Israel, China, and North Korea—declined to participate. While India and Pakistan are not signatories to the 1970 treaty, the Marshall Islands' legal team argues that their nuclear armaments are in violation of international law.

Yahoo News reported:

Judges at the International Court of Justice are holding a series of hearings over the next week-and-a-half to decide whether it is indeed competent to hear the lawsuits brought against India and Pakistan.

A third hearing against Britain, scheduled to start on Wednesday, will be devoted to "preliminary objections" raised by London.

The unprecedented lawsuit is moving forward at the same time that many powerful countries, including the U.S., are increasing and modernizing their nuclear arsenal, and as North Korea threatens Western nations with claims of possessing a nuclear bomb.

The U.S. detonated 67 nuclear bombs over the Marshall Islands between 1946-1958, the equivalent of 1.7 Hiroshima bombs per day for 12 years, as part of its nuclear weapons testing program, according to the anti-nuclear weapons group Nuclear Zero whose lawyers are arguing on behalf of the island nation.

Marshall Islanders argue that they have suffered tremendously from the tests and resultant lingering radioactivity, and that they therefore have a special interest in seeing the world's nuclear-armed nations work to reduce the chance of further detonations.

Tony de Brum, the former foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, attested to the horrors of nuclear weapons as he told the international court that "the entire sky turned blood red," when he witnessed a nuclear test at age nine while fishing with his grandfather, the Associated Press reported.

"He said some of his country's islands were 'vaporized' by the tests," the news agency wrote.

Nuclear Zero on its website quoted Rokko Legenbelik, a Marshall Islander who described witnessing one of the most powerful nuclear tests, known as Bravo, performed by the U.S. in the Pacific atoll in 1954:

“It was like the sun was all around us.  And we heard the big thunder. I was very scared. My parents didn’t understand what was happening,” said Rokko.

The explosion sent a radioactive cloud some 20 miles into the atmosphere and created a nuclear hurricane that engulfed Rongelap. The Bravo test had been carried out despite a change in the wind's direction, and the local residents were not warned ahead of time. Fallout rained down on the unsuspecting islanders—men in their fishing boats, others tending or gathering crops, children at play.

Rokko remembers that after the Bravo explosion, every man, woman and child on Rongelap Atoll was sickened by the yellowish "snow" that fell from the sky and blanketed her island. Both of her parents later died of cancer, as did many other villagers. Rokko herself suffered from thyroid cancer. Two of her children died of complications she believes were associated with the lingering effects of the fallout.

One hundred and ninety countries signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, the most signatories of any international arms agreement. Those nations signing the treaty agreed "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."

Forty-four years later, Nuclear Zero observes that "there are still no negotiations in sight." In addition, the group notes that nuclear-armed nations "are actively planning for nuclear weapon deployment at least through the end of the 21st century, continue to invest in modernizing their nuclear arsenals," and "ignore multilateral forums that discuss the need to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons."

"We are fighting for what we believe is the only solution, in terms of peace and prosperity in the world of the future," de Brum explained in a press conference when the lawsuit was first launched in 2014:

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Biden Urged to Sign Executive Order Guaranteeing Rail Workers Paid Sick Leave

After the president brokered a compulsory contract without a single paid day off for illness, one labor advocate implored him to "put up or shut up about how you really want them to have sick leave!"

Brett Wilkins ·

Campaigners Demand Deep Cuts to Plastic Production as Global Treaty Negotiations Ramp Up

"The scale of the problem is mind-boggling," said one advocate. "Plastic is in our blood. It's in fetuses. It's really encroaching on every aspect of human existence."

Julia Conley ·

Putting 'Profits Over People', Senate Rejects Paid Sick Leave for Rail Workers

"Senate Republicans and Joe Manchin have yet AGAIN failed working Americans by voting down seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers," lamented Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

Brett Wilkins ·

'We Must Cancel Student Debt,' Activists Argue as SCOTUS Agrees to Hear Case in February

"The right-tilted Supreme Court now holds in the balance relief for millions of hardworking Americans," said one campaigner. "It would be a giant loss for the economy if justices rule in favor of the special interests."

Jessica Corbett ·

A Labor Revolt Is Brewing... Inside the National Labor Relations Board

"From Congress, we demand funds, not furloughs," says the NLRB union. "From NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, we demand collaboration, not coercion."

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo