Nuclear Disarmament Under International Law


Atmospheric nuclear tests were common in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s.

Atmospheric nuclear tests were common in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands today filed suit against nine nuclear armed states at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, contending that the nine countries (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), were in violation of their obligations under international law to move towards complete nuclear disarmament. The Marshall Islands also filed a separate suit against the United States in the Federal District Court in San Francisco.

At its heart, the case centers on a claim by the Marshall Islands that the five countries who have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) are violating their obligations under the treaty to pursue complete nuclear disarmament “at the earliest possible date” as specified in the treaty. The Marshall Islands contends that the four non-signatory states (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) are violating customary international law by developing nuclear weapons.

Despite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, several states are seeking to modernize their nuclear arsenals. In total, there are more than 17,000 nuclear warheads in existence, 16,000 of which are held by the United States and Russia. While this figure is down sharply from Cold War levels, the Marshall Islands asserts that modernization of nuclear arsenals violations NPT obligations to pursue disarmament.

The Marshall Islands were the site of US nuclear tests after World War II. In total, 67 atmospheric nuclear tests were carried out in the Marshall Islands, the last of which took place in 1958.

What do you think? Will the Marshall Islands be successful in slowing or stopping the modernization of nuclear arsenals through the international legal system? How do you think the ICJ might approach the question? How will the nuclear powers respond?

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