|Seal of the International Court of Justice|
(The Hague, Netherlands)
“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.”The campaign that enabled that declaration to be made was a long and, at times, arduous one. Nations of the Pacific Ocean were to the forefront. Japan, as we know, was the first (and thankfully, only) nation to experience the devastation of nuclear weapons in 1945. Following the end of WW II the Pacific Ocean and many of its inhabitants became either guinea pigs, or were forcibly evicted from their lands, to enable nuclear weapons testing. The US, UK, and France all conducted atmospheric or underground nuclear testing in the Pacific.
In 1946 the residents of Bikini Atoll (in the Marshall Islands) were the first to be relocated to allow the US to undertake 23 nuclear weapons tests. Within just a few years the people of the Marshall Islands began to show signs of nuclear diseases and even now are still awaiting compensation from the (US) Nuclear Claims Tribunal.
During the 1950s the United Kingdom detonated a series of nine high atmosphere tests at Kiritimati (Christmas Island) and other nearby islands. A 2005 study showed that sailors from the UK, New Zealand and Fiji who had observed these tests had suffered health effects due to radioactive fallout in either themselves or their children. A class action was begun against the UK Ministry of Defence as a result of this study. In 2012 British veterans were denied the opportunity to sue the Ministry of Defence on the grounds that too much time had elapsed between the testing and them becoming aware of their illnesses.
France then joined the nuclear party in 1966 with testing at Mururoa Atoll despite objections from the Polynesian Territorial Assembly. Over three decades France tested at least 175 nuclear devices, initially in the atmosphere and then, after 1974, underground. According to doctors in the area, people living close to Mururoa experience higher than normal thyroid and cancer problems. French scientists have collected extensive data on water, food, births, deaths and other demographics in the area for study on the effects of nuclear radiation. The results have never been made public.
Opposition to nuclear weapons testing was mounting. Indigenous leaders were joined by activists in Australia, New Zealand and other nations around and in the Pacific. Led initially by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) – begun in the UK – a number of grass-roots organisations were making it clear to the nuclear powers that the Pacific did not want their weapons testing.
By the 1970s these groups had formed a large and increasingly active opposition movement. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were by now organising ships and yachts to sail into Mururoa waters in protest to the testing occurring there. Even the New Zealand government took part - sending two of its naval frigates to Mururoa. The French government was becoming exasperated. Protest yachts were boarded by French commandoes and their crews assaulted, arrested and held without trial.
By the 1980s nuclear powered and/or armed warships from the US were being blockaded by hundreds of yachts, kayaks and other small craft from entering New Zealand ports. In a knee-jerk reaction to the effectiveness of opposition the French government ordered the bombing and sinking of the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland Harbour on 10 July 1985. The New Zealand Prime Minister at the time, David Lange, called the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior “…a sordid act of international state-backed terrorism.” Lange’s government had already banned nuclear warships from entering New Zealand waters and in 1987 enacted the Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act, one of the world's first legislated such zones. Palau (another Pacific nation) had established the world’s first nuclear free constitution in 1979.
From Opposition to Illegality
In 1973 Australia and New Zealand took France to the International Court to test the legality of French nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. The French ignored the Court's ruling to desist.
The action inspired Harold Evans, a retired magistrate from New Zealand, to begin lobbying for the International Court to be approached to declare on the legality of nuclear weapons. Evans and others initiated the World Court Project. BY 1995 the Project was able to present over 40 declarations, the signatures of more than 11,000 lawyers and the backing of several globally prominent citizens (including Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nobel laureates) to the International Court’s registrar.
Oral submissions by 22 countries were presented to the Court in November 1995. On 8 July 1996 the 14 judges of the International Court – all from 14 different countries - gave their decision on seven points (one of which, passed unanimously) is quoted at the beginning of this post.
Twenty Years On
The Court’s declaration to bring about nuclear disarmament has yet to be fulfilled. At the time of the declaration (1996) there were around 27,700 nuclear warheads world-wide. The number was dropping (it had peaked in 1986 at over 70,000) and today stands at over 15,000 – 93% of those being held by the US and Russia. In 1996 six states had nuclear weapons capability (the US, Russia, UK, France, China, India), but three more have been added since then (Pakistan, Israel, North Korea).
Under the NATO agreement the US has “shared” nuclear weapons with Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey. It is thought that a similar agreement exists between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Todays nuclear weapons are significantly more powerful than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just one of todays bombs could wipe out Hiroshima plus 50 more similar sized cities. The world still has over 15,000 of these! Whether it is 70,000 or 15,000 makes no difference. The number needs to be zero.
The destructive power of these weapons of mass destruction should be enough to make them illegal. When the waste of money that is spent developing and deploying them is added into the equation the case against nuclear weapons becomes abundantly obvious. Global annual spending on nuclear weapons is estimated at over US$100 billion. That's $11.4 million every hour of every day! Surely, in a world of starvation, poor health outcomes, unsanitary conditions and a number of other human tragedies, that is unjustifiable in any language.
Twenty years on and we still have a long way to go.