Former Marshalls minister speaks at anti-nuke case

5:00 pm on 8 March 2016

The Marshall Islands former foreign minister has told an international court that several islands in his country were vaporised as a result of nuclear testing.

A file photo from July 2014 shows an atomic bomb explosion in Bikini Atoll.

A file photo from July 2014 shows an atomic bomb explosion in Bikini Atoll. Photo: STF / AFP

An international court in The Netherlands yesterday began hearings in a nuclear disarmament battle involving the Marshall Islands and the world's nuclear powers.

The Marshall Islands is going to court to try to force Britain, India and Pakistan to get rid of their nuclear weapons.

The island nation accuses those nuclear states of failing to halt the nuclear arms race.

The Marshalls was used as an American nuclear testing site for 12 years, and its government said nuclear-armed states were not respecting their nuclear disarmament obligations under international treaties and law.

Former foreign minister Tony de Brum spoke at the International Court of Justice in The Hague and said some of the tests wiped whole islands off the face of the earth.

"Several islands in my country were vaporised and others are estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years. Many many Marshallese died, suffered birth defects never before seen and battled cancers resulting from contamination."

A long road to court

The Marshall Islands filed lawsuits in the International Court of Justice nearly two years ago against nine states including declared nuclear powers China, France, Russia and the United States as well as Israel and North Korea.

Only Britain, India and Pakistan have made a commitment to respond to the suits and are appearing before the court.

The Marshall Islands has accused the nine countries of flagrant violation of international law for failing to pursue the negotiations required by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the hearings, the court will hear the preliminary objections raised by the UK, India and Pakistan.

The court will determine whether any legal obstacles prevent the cases from going forward for consideration on their merits.

The Marshall islands legal team said the British case differed from the cases of India and Pakistan in that Britain was a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and bound by its Article VI.

That clause requires states to pursue negotiations "in good faith" to end the nuclear arms race and achieve total nuclear disarmament.

The Marshall Islands contends that India and Pakistan are bound by similar obligations under customary international law.

Case could "change the world"

"From a legal perspective, the issues presented by these cases are ordinary ones, but a positive outcome will, spectacularly, change the world, " said Phon van den Biesen, who is leading the team.

"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."

Many activists and academics believe getting the three larger nations into court is a victory in itself for the Marshall Islands which is home to just 50,000 people.

It was the site of 67 nuclear tests by 1958 and health impacts from the tests linger to this day.

"The success will be in putting the issue back on the agenda.This is as much as the Marshall Islands can hope for," said Dapo Akande, professor of international law at Oxford University.

"When the Marshall Islands goes to the ICJ, it's equal with Britain and with India," Akande added.

"Big countries get dragged into disputes to which they otherwise would not have needed to pay attention."

Nuclear test explosion at Bikini Atoll for Operation Crossroads, Marshall Islands, 1945/6

Nuclear test at Bikini Atoll for Operation Crossroads, Marshall Islands Photo: Supplied