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A Wedge for Nuclear Disarmament

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith …”

What if words like this actually meant something?

This is Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which the United States signed in 1970. It continues: “… 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.”

Please read it again, slowly, understanding that 190 nations have signed onto these words: “a treaty on general and complete (nuclear) disarmament.” Here’s a wild thought. What if they were recited aloud every Sunday in churches and other public spaces across the nation, the way congregants at my parents’ church recited the Apostle’s Creed when I was a boy? Each word, slowly uttered, welled up from the soul. The words were sacred. Isn’t a world free of nuclear weapons — and beyond that, free of war itself — worth believing in?

The treaty’s preamble also calls for “the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery …”

What if these words could stand up to the geopolitics of cynicism and military-industrial profit? What if the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons — the NPT — weren’t simply a verbal coffin in which hope for humanity’s future lay interred? What if it could come to life and help reorganize global culture?

I ask such questions only because I suddenly believe it’s possible, thanks to an unlikely player in the geopolitical realm: a nation with a population of about 70,000 people. The Republic of the Marshall Islands filed suit in both the International Court of Justice in the Hague and U.S. federal court against the five NPT signatories — the United States, the U.K., China, Russia and France — that possess nuclear weapons, demanding that they comply with the treaty they signed. For good measure, the lawsuit demands compliance from the other four nuclear nations as well — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — on the grounds of international law and, well, sanity.

Here’s the thing. This audacious lawsuit is a disarmament wedge. I’ve been in touch with Laurie Ashton, the lead attorney for the case in U.S. federal court, and have read the brief appealing the suit’s dismissal, which was filed last month. To get this close to the case — to its language, to its soul — is to feel possibility begin pulsing in a unique way.

As Ashton put it, “The NGOs and protesters are just talk, talk, talk. But when you sue the nuclear nations, then they listen.”

Attesting to the seriousness of this suit, she noted: “The Marshall Islands are on record. They have a mission to make sure this never happens to another people again.”

This tiny nation of coral reefs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, once a U.S. trust territory, was the site of 67 above-ground nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. These tests, so cynically perpetrated on an “expendable” people, turned much of the area into radioactive wasteland, wrecked a way of life and created terrible health problems for the residents, with which they still struggle with two generations later.

“No nation should ever suffer as we have,” said Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Speaking of the appeal of the decision dismissing the U.S suit, he declared: “We are in this for the long haul. We remain steadfast in our belief that nuclear weapons benefit no one and that what is right for humankind will prevail.”

Only as I began to grasp the courage and determination behind the lawsuits did the words of the NPT start to come to life for me. In nearly half a century, no other nation or organization has sued for the enforcement of this treaty, which has been contemptuously ignored by the nations that possess and continue to upgrade their nuclear arsenals. The U.S. routinely invests tens (or hundreds) of billions of dollars annually into its nukes. The NPT, for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist — not for the haves.

But it does exist.

“At the time” — in the 1960s, as the NPT was being negotiated — “there was intent to negotiate nuclear disarmament,” Ashton said. “At the time, (the nuclear danger) was much more in the consciousness. It was a different era. The level of complacency we have now was not the case then.”

That intent was encased in legal language, then filed under the heading “irrelevant.” It disappeared for 45 years. But now it’s back.

In the case in U.S. federal court, which challenges only the U.S. arsenal, the Marshall Islands are claiming injury in two ways: 1. As a signatory of the treaty themselves, they are owed U.S. participation in disarmament negotiations, as per its agreement. 2. Without that participation, as the U.S. continues to upgrade and enhance its nuclear arsenal and maintain hundreds of weapons on hair-trigger alert, the Marshall Islands — and all the rest of the Planet Earth — are in “a measurable increased risk of grave danger” from nuclear weapons use, either intentional or accidental.

Oral arguments in the U.S. case are likely to begin sometime next year. There’s no telling what will happen, of course. But this is not mere powerless, symbolic protest of a great wrong. The Marshall Islands suits challenge the nuclear states at a level that could yield real, not symbolic, victory and change.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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