Over the next two weeks, oral arguments in the Marshall Islands’ nuclear disarmament cases will take place at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) originally filed the lawsuits in April 2014 against all nine nuclear-armed nations (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea). These are the first contentious cases about nuclear disarmament to be brought before the world’s highest court.
The RMI claims that the nuclear-armed nations are in breach of nuclear disarmament obligations under existing international law. This applies to the P5 nations that are signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as well as to the four non-NPT signatories (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) under customary international law.
“We are, basically, asking the Court to tell the respondent states to live up to their obligations under international law and to conduct negotiations leading to the required result: nuclear disarmament in all its aspects,” said Phon van den Biesen, Co-Agent for the RMI and attorney at law in Amsterdam, who is leading the International Legal Team.
From March 7-16, the cases against India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom will be argued. The three respondents are the only nations among the “Nuclear Nine” that accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ. The other six nuclear-armed nations were invited to accept the jurisdiction of the Court in this case, but either explicitly declined (China) or ignored the application (U.S., Russia, France, Israel and North Korea).
The applications filed by the RMI in April 2014 are available online. All subsequent filings – memorials and counter-memorials – have thus far been treated as confidential by the ICJ. Standard practice of the ICJ is to make these documents public once the oral argument phase has begun. If and when the ICJ makes the memorials and counter-memorials public, they will also be available at the aforementioned link.
Arguments in RMI vs. India will take place on March 7, 10, 14 and 16. Arguments in RMI vs. Pakistan will take place on March 8, 11, 14 and 16. Arguments in RMI vs. United Kingdom will take place on March 9, 11, 14 and 16. All sessions will be livestreamed on the ICJ website, and transcripts will be available soon after each session. This round of hearings will address preliminary objections filed by each respondent nation. The Court’s 15 justices will decide whether the cases will proceed to the next phase in which the merits will be considered.
The ICJ issued an Advisory Opinion in 1996 about the legality of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. The justices wrote unanimously, “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” Twenty years later, no nuclear disarmament negotiations have taken place among nuclear-armed nations, and all nine are engaged in some level of “modernization” of their nuclear arsenals.
While the ICJ will hear arguments exploring complex interpretations of international law, the Marshall Islands continues to highlight the underlying reason for bringing these cases.
Tony de Brum, former Marshall Islands Foreign Minister and Co-Agent in the cases, said, “I have seen with my very own eyes nuclear devastation and know with conviction that nuclear weapons must never again be visited upon humanity. Nuclear weapons are a senseless threat to survival and there are basic norms that compel those who possess them to pursue and achieve their elimination. This is the subject of legal action by my country at the International Court of Justice.”
The United States used the Marshall Islands as a testing ground for 67 nuclear weapon tests from 1946-58, causing human and environmental catastrophes that persist to this day.
Rick Wayman is Director of Programs at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a consultant to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Follow him on twitter at @rickwayman.