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Marshall Islands sues nuclear powers

The Marshall Islands has accused the US and eight other nations of "flagrant violations" of international nuclear law.

Last updated: 24 Apr 2014 22:40
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The islands have been a nuclear test site for the United States for more than a decade [GALLO/GETTY]

The Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands is taking on the United States and the other eight heavyweight nuclear-armed nations with an unprecedented lawsuit, accusing them of "flagrant violations" of international law.

The island group filed legal claims on Wednesday against each of the nine countries - Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea - in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands.

The islands have accused the countries of violating the 1958 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and provisions under its "customary international law". 

The Marshall Islands claims that the countries are modernising their nuclear arsenals instead of taking steps towards disarmament.

It estimates the countries 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.

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.

Tony de Brum, Marshall Islands foreign minister

Notably, none of the countries had been informed in advance of the lawsuits.

Spokespeople from the US 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 commented that 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, adding that he was not a legal expert.

Action not compensation

The Marshall Islands has a long history of nuclear testing.

The islands were the site of 67 nuclear tests by the United States over a 12-year period which contributed to, if not caused, lasting health and environmental problems.

"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.

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.

In 1996 the International Court of Justice said unanimously that an obligation existed to bring the disarmament negotiations to a conclusion but instead "progress towards disarmament has essentially been stalemated," Burroughs said.

Krieger said the Marshall Islands foreign minister approached additional countries about filing suit as well.

"I think there is some interest, but I’m not sure anybody is ready," he said. 

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