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. The International Court at The Hague refused it on what was effectively a diplomatic-cum-legal technicality.
The Marshall Islands—population 53,000—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 57 nuclear devices on Bikini Atoll and other parts of the Marshall Islands. Over a 12-year period the United States exploded the equivalent of 200 kilotons a day. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons.
Not surprisingly, Bikini Atoll is now uninhabitable. Also not surprisingly the Marshall Islanders suffer one of the highest rates of cancer and radiation-related birth defects in the world. The United States government provides military protection but not a single oncologist.
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.”
Photo – Peter Dejong/AP
The verdict at the hugely ornate Peace Palace at the Hague was a close-run thing. However, the three key defending states—India, Pakistan and Britain—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 failed to negotiate 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 favour.
Disappointed Marshall Islands lawyer Phon van den Biesen said: “It’s a dispute that is clear to all of the world except for the judges here.”
Rick Wayman, at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation searched for a silver lining and told New Zealand Radio that “other non-nuclear countries will be inspired to step up, demand justice and take action.”
And indeed there are some signs of just that as a six-nation coalition are using the island’s 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.
The highest point in the island chain is only six feet above sea level. Because of rising sea levels the islands are expected to be uninhabitable by the middle of this century—if not sooner.
A 1983 agreement with Washington gives them the right of abode in America and thousands have turned their backs on a tropical island paradise to set up communities in Arkansas, Oregon and Washington state. Unless a way can be found to hold back the seas the rest will soon follow—the world’s first radioactive climate change refugees.
Tom Arms is a broadcaster and columnist focused on world affairs. His regular wold affairs podcast can be heard at www.lookaheadnews.com. He is also available for lectures and speaking engagements.
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