Tiny Marshall Islands takes on India in nuclear disarmament fight

A small chain of Pacific islands – some of which were once vapourised by atomic bomb tests – sought in court on Monday to force India, the world’s second-most populous country, to get on board with nuclear disarmament.

The tiny republic of the Marshall Islands, which has a population of less than 70,000 people, says that the world’s nine nuclear weapons states have violated various obligation to negotiate in good faith to dismantle their nuclear arsenals.

Three of them – India, Pakistan and Britain – are bound by previous commitments to respond to cases brought at the International Court of Justice. India was the first to be heard, on Monday, followed during the week by Pakistan and Britain.

Members of the Indian delegation to the International Court of Justice, Neeru Chadha, left, and Harish Salve, center, greet a member of the Marshall Islands' legal team ahead of a preliminary hearing on nuclear disarmament at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, on Monday.

They say the claim is beyond the jurisdiction of the court in The Hague.

Nobody expects the Marshall Islands to force the three powers to disarm, but the archipelago’s dogged campaign highlights the growing scope for political minnows to get a hearing through global tribunals.

The island republic, a U.S. protectorate until 1986, was the site of 67 nuclear tests by 1958, the health impacts of which linger to this day.

“Several islands in my country were vapourised and others are estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years,” said Marshallese Minister Tony deBrum, describing seeing the sky “aflame” from a test 200 miles distant as a nine-year-old boy.

“Many died, suffered birth defects never before seen and battled cancer from the contamination,” he added.

The other nuclear powers – including declared powers China, France, Russia and the United States and undeclared nuclear states Israel and North Korea have not responded to the suit the islands filed last year.

The islands say the declared states are bound to negotiate disarmament by the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while the other states face similar obligations under customary international law.

“It is a shame that the other six nuclear armed states have decided that for them there was no need to respond,” said Phon van den Biesen, lawyer for the Marshall Islands.

“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.”