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The Marshall Islands Versus the Nuclear Nations

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April 24, 2014. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) filed landmark lawsuits against all nine countries that possess nuclear weapons. “Nuclear Zero” Lawsuits were filed in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against all nine nuclear-armed nations, and filed against the United States in U.S. Federal District Court.

The primary claim of these suits? Nuclear weapons states, including nations who have tested nuclear weapons — United States, Russian Federation, France, United Kingdom, China, and India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel — are in violation of Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Article VI states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes 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.” The RMI claim argues that Nuclear Weapons States have failed to disarm, have been modernizing their nuclear arsenals instead of taking steps towards disarmament, and have failed to negotiate in good faith to achieve full enforcement of the NPT Treaty.

In filing suit, this sovereign nation of some 54,000 people, puts the leaders of the Nuclear Weapons States on notice. Some 44 years have passed and nuclear arsenals continue to be modernized, and national security strategies continue to place nuclear weapons at the top of the list. Now, the nuclear powers must explain, on the record, why they have failed to negotiate in good faith. The primary goal of these actions?  To fully enforce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by making the development, storage, and use of all nuclear weapons illegal.

This is not the first time this mouse has roared.

April 20, 1954. Marshallese nuclear survivors sent a petition to the United Nations following the March 1, 1954 detonation of a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb, Bravo Test that produced the dirtiest release of nuclear fallout that the world has seen (greater levels of radiation than any other bomb, more than Chernobyl, more than Fukushima). Marshallese people, U.S. servicemen on Rongerik Atoll (weathermen who were monitoring winds and fallout), and the twenty-three-man crew of the Japanese fishing vessel Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon) received near-lethal doses of radiation. In an attempt to halt future tests, the Marshallese people requested assistance from the United Nations, submitting a petition to the Trusteeship Council.

… in view of the increasing danger from the experiments with deadly explosives thousands of times more powerful than anything previously known to men, the lethal effects of which have already touched the inhabitants of two of the atolls in the Marshalls, namely, Rongelap and Uterik, who are now suffering in various degrees from ‘lowering of blood count,’ burns, nausea and the falling off of hair from the head, and whose complete recovery no one can promise with any certainty, we, the Marshallese people feel that we must follow the dictates of our consciences to bring forth this urgent plea to the UN, which has pledged itself to safeguard the life, liberty and the general well-being of the people of the trust territory, of which the Marshallese people are a part.

We request that: 1. All the experiments with lethal weapons within this area be immediately ceased.

2. If the experiments with said weapons should be judged absolutely necessary for the eventual well-being of all the people of this world and cannot be stopped or changed to other areas due to the unavailability of other locations, we then submit the following suggestions:

a. All possible precautionary measures be taken before such weapons are exploded. All human beings and their valuable possessions be transported to safe distances first, before such explosions occur.

b. All the people living in this area be instructed in safety measures. The people of Rongelab would have avoided much danger if they had known not to drink the waters on their home island after the radioactive dusts had settled on them.

c. Adequate funds be set aside to pay for the possessions of the people in case they will have to be moved from their homes. This will include lands, houses and whatever possessions they cannot take with them, so that the unsatisfactory arrangements for the Bikinians and Eniwetok people shall not be repeated.

d. Courses be taught to Marshallese medical practitioners and health-aides which will be useful in the detecting of and the circumventing of preventable dangers.

 –  Complaint Regarding Explosions of Lethal Weapons within Our Home Islands, to United Nations Trusteeship Council, April 20, 1954”  

The Marshallese petition was brought to the floor of the General Assembly of the United Nations, prompting calls from the USSR and other nations for a complete ban on atomic testing, prompting a placating response and a promise from the United States:

The fact that anyone was injured by recent nuclear tests in the Pacific has caused the American people genuine and deep regret… The United States Government considers the resulting petition of the Marshall Islanders to be both reasonable and helpful… The Trusteeship Agreement of 1947 which covers the Marshall Islands was predicated upon the fact that the United Nations clearly approved these islands as a strategic area in which atomic tests had already been held. Hence, from the onset, it was clear that the right to close areas for security reasons anticipated closing them for atomic tests, and the United Nations was so notified; such tests were conducted in 1948, 1951, 1952 as well as in 1954… The question is whether the United States authorities in charge have exercised due precaution in looking after the safety and welfare of the Islanders involved. That is the essence of their petition and it is entirely justified. In reply, it can be categorically stated that no stone will be left unturned to safeguard the present and future well-being of the Islanders.

Reaction to the Marshallese petition and United States response from the community of nations included vociferous calls for an end to atomic testing and a global ban on nuclear weapons. These calls were led by the Soviet Union. After eight years of negotiation, with stalemates resolved by an agreement to detach nuclear disarmament terms from the treaty, a Limited Test Ban Treaty finally came into force in 1963.

September 13, 2012. Marshallese nuclear survivors again petition the United Nations with testimony and statements in support of UN Special Rapporteur report on the legacy of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands. Rongelap community member Mrs. Lemeyo Abon’s testimony: “We have a saying jej bok non won ke jemake which means ‘if not us, who?’ We have to act now, we have to let peace prevail, this is our time for the future of our children and grandchildren.  I urge this council and the members of the United Nations to take action to not only help us help ourselves, but to make sure that such miseries do not occur ever again.”

In his assessment of the US nuclear weapons testing program and its impact on human rights in the Marshall Islands, Special Rapporteur Calin Georgescu observed that communities affected by nuclear testing over sixty years ago in the Marshall Islands are still adversely affected by the radiation and near-irreversible environmental contamination from US weapons tests. In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children. They endure the problems associated with raising physically disabled children, caring for increasingly feeble elderly, suffering from the fear and anxiety of additional exposures, and confronting the reality of intergenerational effects. The majority of nuclear survivors from Bikini and Rongelap live in exile, largely on borrowed or rented Marshallese land on Kwajalein, Majuro, Kili, in Hawaii, and in the continental US.

In response to the overwhelming evidence of continuing harm to the Marshallese people and their environment resulting from US detonation of nuclear weapons, the United States dismissed the relevance of addressing such matters in this UN human rights forum. And, they disagreed that there is a continuing obligation by the international community to encourage a “final and just resolution” of the issue.

Response from the community nations was, on that day, tepid. Contrary to UN protocol, the report had been unexplainably delayed in its dissemination to member nations and the press. Towards the end of the three-week session, the report was adopted by consensus vote of the Council.

Sometimes it is the squeak of the mouse — it’s presence in the room — rather than its roar, has lasting impact.

This UN Human Rights Council document, its recommendations, and the historic presence of Marshallese nuclear survivors at the UN Human Rights Council has generated ripples in the pond. Once again, the world is aware of the nuclear disaster that has defined and refined the Marshall Islands nation. And this awareness plays a role in the revitalized movement to accomplish what should have been done so many decades ago, outlaw all the presence, development and use of all nuclear weapons.

February 14, 2014. At the second UN meeting on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (Nayarit, February 2014) the Marshallese experience again served as a human reminder for what is at stake, when considering the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons:

We urgently renew our call to all states possessing nuclear weapons to intensify efforts to address their responsibilities in moving towards an effective and secure disarmament.

It has been almost 68 years since the General Assembly in its very first resolution established a mechanism for the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and other weapons adaptable to mass destruction. It has been more than 45 years since the conclusion of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Yet today, we still fear the day where we are forced to relive the horrors. We do not want other people to suffer the same consequences we did! …if the lessons of the end of World War II, and the lessons of all the tests conducted since then have not been learned, then we must learn them. If the experiences of laboratory exposure are not part of our learning pathway, then they must be added. If we do not take the message of nuclear survivors to heart, then we will have to soften our hearts. Nuclear weapons threaten us, they do not protect us. No matter where they are located or deployed, one push of a red button could be the end of life as we know it. That is not a chance worth taking.

At the conclusion of this meeting, 146 states signed on to a Statement calling for a legally-binding agreement by 2015, the 70th anniversary of the US use of atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US, the UK, Russia, France and China did not attend. But the larger world has spoken.

I look forward to the next update in this saga, a story of life and death and matters that truly define our future. That the Republic of the Marshall Islands can be a leader on the world stage, given their relative size and horrific recent history, says so much.

Power, sometimes, is not a matter of size, wealth, nor military might.

Power lies in the truth of human experience.

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. Portions of this essay are drawn from her coauthored book The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report (Johnston and Barker 2008). Her summation of the consequential damages of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands was included in civil society documents submitted to the Intergovernmental Conference on the Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, 04-05 March 2013, Oslo, Norway. See, Nuclear Weapons Tests, Fallout, and the devastating impact on Marshall Islands environment, health and human rights” in Unspeakable Suffering: The Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, edited by Beatrice Fihn (Reaching Critical Will/WILPF, February 2013). Contact her at: bjohnston@igc.org.

Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.  

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