Marshall Islands v Big Nuclear – will Pacific people get the justice they deserve?

Islanders with their belongings approach the Rainbow Warrior. Nuclear fallout made living on Rongelap Atoll hazardous for this community. Image: David Robie/Eyes Of Fire

By Jen Maman

In April 2014, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a tiny island country part of Micronesia, filed groundbreaking lawsuits to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the world’s nine nuclear-armed countries.

Now, almost two years later, the ICJ has heard preliminary oral arguments in three of the cases.

Between 1946 and 1958, 67 nuclear tests were conducted by the US in the Marshalls, making it one of the most contaminated places in the world. With a population of less than 70,000, the Islanders suffered greatly from the impact of radiation; the land and sea poisoned as well.

In 1985, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior helped to relocate the residents of one of the most severely impacted islands, Rongelap, after it became clear that high levels of radioactive contamination made most of the island unfit for habitation.

Between 7-16 March 2016, the ICJ’s panel of 16 judges heard oral arguments by the Marshall Islands and three respondent nations – the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan.

Tony de Brum, Co-Agent of the Marshall Islands and former Foreign Minister, reminded the court why the Marshall Islands, a small nation with limited resources that is seriously threatened by climate change, would bring these lawsuits against some of the world’s most militarily powerful nations.

During the second day of the hearings, he recalled one occasion in 1954 of the testing of a thermonuclear bomb that was 1,000 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. When the explosion occurred, it began to rain radioactive fallout at Rongelap.

Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance.

Radioactive fallout
“No one knew it was radioactive fallout,” said de Brum. “The children thought it was snow. And the children played in the snow. And they ate it.”

Fernando Pereira: David Robie © 1985.
Fernando Pereira at Rongelap … killed by French secret agents in the Rainbow Warrior bombing. Image: David Robie © 1985.

The other six nuclear-armed nations – the United States, Russia, France, China, Israel and North Korea – do not accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ and therefore, would not appear before the Court.

The Marshall Islands contends that the UK, India and Pakistan are in breach of existing international law, which requires good faith negotiations for an end to the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.

The court is expected to deliver its decision in approximately six months from now. Greenpeace will continue to stand with the people of the Marshall Islands in their fight to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

To read more about the hearings just concluded at the ICJ, advocates at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation have been writing daily summaries here. Asia Pacific readers can also access to all relevant court documents at the ICJ website for the cases against the UK, India and Pakistan.

Jen Maman is the senior peace adviser at Greenpeace International.

Nuclear Zero petition at

Eyes of Fire, a book about the Rongelap voyage and bombing of the Rainbow Warrior

Eyes of Fire: 30 Years On microsite – video interviews, articles and photo galleries.

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