activism politics social justice

Why the Marshall Islands took on the world powers

In 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons came into effect. It was signed by the majority of the world’s countries, committing them to halting the advance of nuclear weaponry and working towards eventual disarmament. Nuclear powers signed it too, recognising that the nuclear arms race was perverse, and not a world that we wanted.

It was a remarkable treaty, getting agreement to negotiate towards “a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

44 years later, no such treaty on general disarmament exists. Neither are negotiations towards it underway. Despite some moves by Barack Obama in the early days of his presidency, for which he won a highly premature Nobel peace prize, it’s not really on the agenda. The nuclear powers have failed to uphold their obligations under the treaty, but this year, there was an unusual legal challenge to them to take it seriously.

It came from the Marshall Islands, one of the mercifully few places in the world with experience of nuclear weapons. For 12 years, the US carried out its bomb testing in the archipelago, which it had captured from the Japanese Second World War. The populations of nearby islands were not always notified of tests, leaving them exposed the fallout and to all kinds of medical conditions in the following years. Other islands were evacuated, with the promise that residents could return when it was safe. Some populations returned years later, only to abandon their homes again when they realised that it wasn’t safe after all.

It has now been 60 years since the largest US nuclear test on Bikini Atoll, when a bomb a thousand times more powerful than the one used in Hiroshima was detonated. The island is still uninhabitable. On the occasion of the anniversary, the Marshall Islands lodged a legal action against the nine nuclear states in the International Court of Justice. China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA are all signatories to the treaty.

The Marshall Islands have lodged their case on behalf of everyone on the planet. Whether they will get a hearing remains to be seen, but theirs is a unique voice in international relations and if you’d like to support the campaign, you can sign the petition here.


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