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Nuclear Standoff

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Values the size of Planet Earth are at stake, as the American presidential election grows ever smaller, ever pettier, ever more certain that rancor triumphs over relevance.

Can you imagine, let us say, an issue the size of global nuclear disarmament emerging in this race, somewhere between the groper tapes and the hacked DNC emails? What if — my God — we lived in a country in which such a matter was seriously and publicly discussed, not shunted off to the margins with a grimace and a smirk? The only thing that has mainstream credibility in this country is business as usual, which comes to us wrapped in platitudes about strength and greatness but in reality is mostly about war and profit and the destruction of the planet.

Meanwhile, it’s three minutes to midnight.

And the Republic of the Marshall Islands has lost its case in the International Court of Justice. On a technicality, no less! Phon van den Biesen, lead attorney for the tiny island nation, which had sued the world’s nine nuclear powers — the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — to begin real nuclear disarmament negotiations, said the case was dismissed earlier this month on a “micro formality,” which in my layman’s grasp of the matter might be called, instead, a desperate legal cop out.

The case, which, technically, was brought against only three of the nine nuclear powers, Great Britain, India and Pakistan (because those are the only three nations that acknowledge the binding authority of the ICJ), was dismissed — in a split decision that could be called the First World against the rest of humanity — on the grounds that there wasn’t sufficient evidence of a dispute between the parties, so the court had no jurisdiction to hear the case on its merits.

Huh?

The ICJ’s dissenting judges (in the case against Great Britain, the verdict to dismiss was 9-7, against India and Pakistan it was 8-8), expressed as much incredulity as I did on hearing the news.

The Marshall Islands lawsuits (a second suit was also filed, specifically against the United States, in U.S. federal court, and is still pending) demanded compliance with Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, signed by the U.S. in 1970, which reads: “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.”

“General and complete disarmament — do these words actually have meaning?” I asked last January. “Right now the Marshall Islands stand alone among the nations of Planet Earth in believing that they do.”

This tiny nation of islands and atolls — this former U.S. territory — with a population of about 70,000, was the scene of 67 nuclear test blasts in the 1950s, back when bigger was better. Some people’s homes were destroyed for eternity. The islanders suffered ghastly and often lethal levels of radiation and were essentially regarded, by their U.S. overlords, as human guinea pigs — a fantastic opportunity to study the effects of nuclear fallout. Eventually, the U.S. atoned for its destruction by paying the Republic of the Marshall Islands a pathetic $150 million “for all claims, past, present and future.”

Now this nation is trying to save the rest of the planet by insisting that nuclear disarmament negotiations must get underway.

In a dissenting opinion, ICJ Judge Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade of Brazil lamented that the world needed to recognize the “prevalence of human conscience” over national interests.

“A world with arsenals of nuclear weapons, like ours, is bound to destroy its past, dangerously threatens the present, and has no future at all,” he wrote. “Nuclear weapons pave the way into nothingness. In my understanding, the International Court of Justice, as the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, should, in the present Judgment, have shown sensitivity in this respect, and should have given its contribution to a matter which is a major concern of the vulnerable international community, and indeed of humankind as a whole.”

As Rick Wayman of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation pointed out, of the ICJ justices who voted not to hear the case on its merits, six were from nuclear-armed nations (the U.S., Russia, China, France, Great Britain and India) and the other two from nations (Japan, Italy) “deeply invested in the U.S. ‘nuclear umbrella.’”

The nations of the dissenting judges included Brazil, Somalia, Jamaica, Australia and Morocco.

This week, as if in sync with the Marshall Islanders, a group called the Native Community Action Council convened the Native American Forum on Nuclear Issues, addressing half a century of lingering horror at another nuclear testing site, in Nevada. The forum addressed such issues as abandoned uranium mines and the proposed high-level nuclear waste disposal site under Yucca Mountain, “in the heart of the Western Shoshone Nation (and) a sacred site for Shoshone and Paiute peoples,” according to the organization’s press release.

“Because of U.S. nuclear testing in Nevada, the Western Shoshone Nation is already the most bombed nation on earth’” the release continues. “They suffer from widespread cancer, leukemia, and other diseases as a result of fallout from more than 1,000 atomic explosions on their territory.”

This is the reality we ignore. We’ve been ignoring it for the last 70 years and, indeed, much longer. We’ve reached the end of our ability to treat the planet, and much of its people, as disposable. Much of humanity knows this, but its leaders are refusing to listen. The human conscience is dismissed on a technicality.

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

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