(NEW YORK) — The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands is taking on the United States and the world’s eight other nuclear-armed nations with an unprecedented lawsuit demanding that they meet their obligations toward disarmament and accusing them of “flagrant violations” of international law.
The island group that was used for dozens of U.S. nuclear tests after World War II filed suit Thursday against each of the nine countries in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. It also filed a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco, naming President Barack Obama, the departments and secretaries of defense and energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.
The Marshall Islands claims the nine countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals instead of negotiating disarmament, and it estimates that they will spend $1 trillion on those arsenals over the next decade.
“I personally see it as kind of David and Goliath, except that there are no slingshots involved,” David Krieger, president of the California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, told The Associated Press. He is acting as a consultant in the case. There are hopes that other countries will join the legal effort, he said.
The countries targeted also include Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The last four are not parties to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but the lawsuits argue they are bound by its provisions under “customary international law.” The nonproliferation treaty, considered the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament efforts, requires negotiations among countries in good faith on disarmament.
None of the countries had been informed in advance of the lawsuits.
Spokespeople from the U.S. Embassy in the Netherlands said they could not immediately comment.
Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said he was unaware of the lawsuit, however “it doesn’t sound relevant because we are not members of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.”
“It sounds like it doesn’t have any legal legs,” he said about the lawsuit, adding that he was not a legal expert.
The Marshall Islands were the site of 67 nuclear tests by the United States over a 12-year period, with lasting health and environmental impacts.
“Our people have suffered the catastrophic and irreparable damage of these weapons, and we vow to fight so that no one else on earth will ever again experience these atrocities,” the country’s foreign minister, Tony de Brum, said in a statement announcing the lawsuits.
The country is seeking action, not compensation. It wants the courts to require that the nine nuclear-armed states meet their obligations.
“There hasn’t been a case where individual governments are saying to the nuclear states, ‘You are not complying with your disarmament obligations,” John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, part of the international pro bono legal team, told the AP. “This is a contentious case that could result in a binding judgment.”
Several Nobel Peace Prize winners are said to support the legal action, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Iranian-born rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi.
“We must ask why these leaders continue to break their promises and put their citizens and the world at risk of horrific devastation,” Tutu said in the statement announcing the legal action.
The Marshall Islands is asking the countries to accept the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction in this case and explain their positions on the issue.
The court has seen cases on nuclear weapons before. In the 1970s, Australia and New Zealand took France to the court in an effort to stop its atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific.
The idea to challenge the nine nuclear-armed powers came out of a lunch meeting in late 2012 after the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation gave the Marshall Islands foreign minister a leadership award, Krieger said.
“I’ve known Tony long time,” he said. “We both have had a strong interest for a long time in seeing action by the nuclear weapons states.”
Frustration with the nuclear-armed states has grown in recent years as action toward disarmament appeared to stall, Burroughs and Krieger said.
“One thing I would point to is the U.S. withdrawal in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; that cast a shadow over future disarmament movement,” Krieger said. The treaty originally had bound the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “One other thing, in 1995, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty had a review and was extended indefinitely. I think the nuclear states party to the treaty felt that once that happened, there was no longer pressure on them to fulfill their obligations.”
In 1996, the International Court of Justice said unanimously that an obligation existed to bring the disarmament negotiations to a conclusion, Burroughs said.
Instead, “progress toward disarmament has essentially been stalemated since then,” he said.
Some of the nuclear-armed countries might argue in response to these new lawsuits that they’ve been making progress in certain areas or that they support the start of negotiations toward disarmament, but the Marshall Islands government is likely to say, “Good, but not enough” or “Your actions belie your words,” Burroughs said.
The Marshall Islands foreign minister has approached other countries about filing suit as well, Krieger said. “I think there has been some interest, but I’m not sure anybody is ready.”
Daniel Estrin and Toby Sterling contributed to this report from Jerusalem and Amsterdam.