“The day the sun rose twice”. That's how 1 March 1954 was recorded in the history of Rongelap, a tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean, part of the Marshall Islands. Early that morning, shortly after the sun rose in the east, a second sun appeared in the west. A bright, blinding glow engulfed the Island.
Unknown to the islanders on Rongelap, some 150 kilometers away, at Bikini Atoll, the United States had just set off a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb. Codenamed “Bravo”, its destructive force was a thousand times greater than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
For years after the test, many of the women who were exposed to the radiation suffered reproductive problems. Many others since have developed thyroid and other cancers. In 1985, the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior helped to relocate the islanders to another home.
This was to become the Rainbow Warrior’s last mission. From Rongelap, the Warrior continued to New Zealand where it was bombed by the French secret service in an attempt to prevent Greenpeace from protesting against a French nuclear test at Moruroa.
While atmospheric nuclear testing has since been stopped, a number of governments are still maintaining and modernising extensive nuclear arsenals. There have been numerous nuclear near-misses in several countries, and instances where nuclear weapons were almost launched based on false information, or misjudgment.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a risk of their accidental or deliberate use. With over 17,000 nuclear weapons in existence, that risk is a lot bigger than many people imagine.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands recently launched a bold legal action against the nine nuclear-armed states before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). They’re taking the nuclear weapons states to task for failing to eliminate this danger that threatens us all.
Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshalls – described as ‘by far the most contaminated place in the world’. Having seen their land, sea and people poisoned by radiation, the islanders are now standing up to the nine nuclear giants to say, “Never again.”
The Marshall Islanders argue that the nine states are required under international law to enter into serious negotiations towards total nuclear disarmament but that, to date, they have failed to do so.
Five of the states (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) are Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Article VI of this treaty states that Parties must, "pursue negotiations in good faith … on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control".
It is obvious that this is a promise that they have not kept. Over 40 years after the NPT entered into force, negotiations on complete nuclear disarmament are yet to begin.
The other four states - India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan - are known to possess nuclear weapons, but haven't ratified the NPT. The Republic of the Marshall Islands says that this is no excuse. It argues that the duty to negotiate disarmament is part of customary (unwritten) international law, which is just as binding as a treaty.
A quick glance at the website of the ICJ shows that many legal cases between states are related to narrow-minded bickering about territory or respect for each other's sovereignty. It is sadly rare for a country to bring a case that aims to further humanity's common interest.
As several legal commentators have pointed out, the Marshall Islands faces an uphill battle in getting its case heard, let alone securing a win, however reasonable and important its arguments are.
The ICJ can only decide cases against countries that have agreed to be judged, and few countries are willing to face the judicial music. Out of the nine nuclear-armed states, only India, Pakistan and the UK have previously accepted (with some reservations) the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction.
Nevertheless, the Republic of the Marshall Islands deserves to be commended for taking a stand.
Over 40 years after they signed up to the NPT and committed to disarm, nuclear-armed states are still clinging to their weapons as hard as ever and making a mockery of the promise of a ‘nuclear-free world’.
The ‘Nuclear Zero law suits’ highlight that, in the interest of all nations and all their citizens, states must be held accountable for their promises. And to again remind us that zero is the only safe number of nuclear weapons on the planet.
Greenpeace stands with the people of the Marshall Islands in their fight to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Please support the Islanders and sign up to the #NuclearZero petition calling on nuclear weapons nations to urgently fulfill their moral duty and legal obligation to begin negotiations for complete nuclear disarmament.
Daniel Simons is Legal Counsel for Campaigns and Actions at Greenpeace International. Jen Maman is a Peace Advisor at Greenpeace International.