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NUKEWARS
Top UN court to decide fate of Marshalls epic nuclear case
By Jan HENNOP
The Hague (AFP) Oct 5, 2016


Mixed feelings in Marshalls over epic nuclear case
Majuro (AFP) Marshall Islands (AFP) Oct 4 - As the Marshall Islands awaits an international court ruling Wednesday on whether its lawsuit against three nuclear powers can proceed, many in the western Pacific nation question the merit of the David-versus-Goliath legal battle.

The country of 55,000 people is taking on India, Pakistan and Britain in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), arguing they have failed to comply with the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Initially the lawsuit was even more ambitious -- also including China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia and the United States -- none of which recognised the ICJ's jurisdiction on the matter.

The Marshalls has a long, bitter history with nuclear weapons, making it one of the few nations that can argue with credibility before the ICJ about their impact.

The island nation was ground zero for 67 American nuclear weapons tests from 1946-58 at Bikini and Enewetak atolls, when it was under US administration.

The tests included the 1954 "Bravo" hydrogen bomb, the most powerful ever detonated by the United States, about 1,000 times bigger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

They fed into an apocalyptic zeitgeist in Cold War popular culture, giving a name to the bikini swimsuit and leading to the development of Japan's Godzilla movie monster.

In "Godzilla", the creature is awakened by a hydrogen bomb test, rising from a roiling sea to destroy Tokyo, in a walking, radiation-breathing analogy for nuclear disaster.

- 'Sky turned blood red' -

On the Marshall Islands, the impacts of the nuclear tests were all too real.

Numerous islanders were forcibly evacuated from ancestral lands and resettled, while thousands more were exposed to radioactive fallout.

"Several islands in my country were vaporised and others are estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years," Tony deBrum, a former Marshall Islands foreign minister, told an ICJ hearing earlier this year.

He recalled witnessing the Bravo test as a nine-year-old while fishing with his grandfather in an atoll, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the blast's epicentre.

"The entire sky turned blood red," he said. "Many died, or suffered birth defects never before seen and cancers as a result of contamination."

DeBrum launched the Marshall's ICJ action in 2014 with cooperation from the California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

His actions prompted the International Peace Bureau to nominate him in January for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, which is yet to be awarded.

Yet critics argue the ICJ action is a distraction and the islanders' real fight is with Washington, which carried out the tests in their backyard.

They contend the case has no relationship to victims' claims for increased compensation, better health care and clean-ups to make sites habitable again.

Official criticism has been muted recently to avoid undermining deBrum's Nobel nomination.

But his successor as foreign minister, John Silk, made his views clear before an election last November when voters ousted 40 percent of the parliament, including deBrum.

Labelling the action "unauthorised" and "a publicity stunt", he said the focus should remain on petitioning the US Congress for increased compensation.

"What do these lawsuits have to do with resolving the legacy of the US nuclear testing programme?" he asked.

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation argues that the Marshalls is taking a broader perspective in trying to re-start nuclear disarmament talks that have stalled over the past 20 years.

"The Republic of the Marshall Islands acts for the seven billion of us who live on this planet to end the nuclear weapons threat hanging over all humanity," its website says.

"Everyone has a stake in this."

The UN's highest court will rule Wednesday on whether to take up a case brought by the tiny Marshall Islands against India, Pakistan and Britain for allegedly failing to halt the nuclear arms race.

The decision by the 16-judge bench at the International Court of Justice will determine whether the David-versus-Goliath battle can continue to a full hearing, as Majuro seeks to shine a fresh spotlight on the threat of nuclear weapons.

The tiny Pacific island nation was ground zero for a string of nuclear tests on its pristine atolls between 1946-58, carried out by the United States as the Cold War arms race gathered momentum.

So the country of 55,000 people maintains it can testify with authority about the devastating impact of such arms.

Initially in 2014, Majuro accused nine countries of failing to comply with the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which seeks to inhibit the spread of atomic bombs.

But the ICJ set up in The Hague in 1945 to rule on disputes between states will only determine whether it is competent to hear three cases -- against Britain, India and Pakistan.

The other countries -- China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia and the United States -- have not recognised the court's jurisdiction. Israel has also never formally admitted to having nuclear weapons.

The Marshall Islands maintained that by not stopping the nuclear arms race Britain, India and Pakistan continued to breach their obligations under the treaty -- even if New Delhi and Islamabad have not signed the pact.

The treaty commits all nuclear weapon states "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."

Majuro is calling for the three nuclear powers to take "all necessary measures" to carry out what it considers to be their obligations under the treaty.

- 'Islands vaporised' -

At a March hearing Majuro's lawyers painted a vivid picture of the horrors seen after 67 nuclear tests were carried out on Bikini and Enewetak atolls.

"Several islands in my country were vaporised and others are estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years," Tony deBrum, a former Marshall Islands foreign minister, told the court.

The so-called "Operation Castle" tests in March and April 1954 were particularly devastating and resulted in massive contamination because of the nuclear fall-out.

"The entire sky turned blood-red," said deBrum, who witnessed the explosion of the largest-ever US-built nuclear device called "Castle Bravo" as a nine-year old boy.

Yet critics argue that the ICJ action is a distraction and that the islanders' real fight is with Washington, which carried out the tests in their backyard.

They contend that the case has no relation to the victims' claims for increased compensation, better health care and clean-ups to render the sites habitable again.

Experts however say the islands hoped the three cases before the ICJ will thrust nuclear disarmament talks, which have stalled over the past two decades, back into the spotlight.

In 1996, the ICJ in another case issued a non-binding advisory opinion in which it urged the world's nuclear powers to negotiate and reduce its stockpiles.

Even if the case may not have a direct impact, the Marshall Islands' residents "perhaps feel that the more the difficulties with nuclear weapons are brought to the public consciousness, the better," said Jens Iverson, assistant professor of Public International Law at Leiden University.

"They may hope that the world may become a safer place," Iverson told AFP.

The case also comes amid a spike in tensions between India and Pakistan following renewed skirmishes in the disputed Kashmir region.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over the disputed Himalayan territory.

In 1998, the rival neighbours both demonstrated their nuclear weapons capability.


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