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Marshall Islands Can’t Sue the World’s Nuclear Powers, U.N. Court Rules

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy on October 6, 2016 at 11:18 pm

By MARLISE SIMONS, New York Times, October 5, 2016
PARIS — The United Nations’ highest court on Wednesday rejected a bid by the Marshall Islands to sue the world’s nuclear powers, saying the court did not have jurisdiction because there was no evidence of a legal dispute that it could adjudicate.

The Marshall Islands, a nation of islands and atolls in the Pacific Ocean that has endured 67 nuclear tests by the United States and still suffers the consequences, had filed a suit saying the nuclear powers were violating international law by failing to respect their disarmament obligations under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and customary international law.

The case raised eyebrows in legal circles when it was filed in 2014. The Marshall Islands said it was seeking to revive the fading debate about nuclear disarmament and warn about the dangers of a new arms race.

The case was filed at the International Court of Justice, a civil court in The Hague that addresses disputes between nations. Lawyers said the goal was to persuade the court to order serious disarmament talks that were “long overdue.” They also said that many countries favored drafting a convention to ban nuclear arsenals, much like the treaties that prohibit chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction.

On Wednesday, Ronny Abraham, the court’s president, acknowledged that the Marshall Islands was motivated to promote nuclear disarmament because of “the suffering of its people” caused by the series of weapons tests on its territory.
Many of the nation’s residents suffered illnesses attributed to radiation, and some islands were obliterated by explosions many times more powerful than the one caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

But Judge Abraham said the country had not proved that an actual dispute existed between itself and nuclear-armed states when it filed its case.

By a vote of 9 to 7, the judges ruled that the court had no jurisdiction.

“We are extremely disappointed,” said Phon van den Biesen, the Dutch lawyer who led the Marshall Islands team. “The court is very divided and turned down the case on a microformality.”

“It’s difficult to understand that it finds no jurisdiction even when the parties have ‘opposite views,’ ” he said, citing a definition that the court uses for cases it hears.

“The opposing views on nuclear weapons are obvious to anyone,” Mr. van den Biesen said by telephone from The Hague.

More than a dozen international law experts donated their time to assist the Marshall Islands, which has a population of 70,000. Rick Weyman, the director of programs at the California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, said a coalition of 55 international peace and activist groups had backed the initiative.

The Marshall Islands initially filed cases against all nine nations that say they have nuclear arms or are believed to possess them: Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States. Three countries — Britain, India and Pakistan — responded to the legal challenge and were part of Wednesday’s decision. Only those three have recognized the court’s jurisdiction as compulsory; the other six choose whether to opt in on a case-by-case basis and ignored this complaint.

The hearings in the case focused only on the matter of jurisdiction. With its decision on Wednesday, the court will not consider the merits of the case presented by the Marshall Islands, and there can be no appeal.

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