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Thursday, May 25, 2017
John Burroughs is Executive Director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and a member of the Marshall Islands’ International Legal Team.
- At the invitation of President Obama, on April 1 more than 50 leaders of countries, including all countries possessing nuclear arsenals, except Russia and North Korea, gathered in Washington for the fourth Nuclear Security Summit.
The focus was on securing civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU) and other modest and voluntary steps aimed at preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear and radiological materials usable in weapons. HEU intended to fuel civilian nuclear reactors is a small fraction of the total amount of weapons-usable HEU and plutonium in the world.
It was a strange spectacle indeed to see so much political capital invested in limited measures which do not address:
• the estimated 15,000-plus nuclear weapons in the possession of states which say they are prepared to use them; there are no safe hands, state or non-state, for these horrific devices
• the large stocks of HEU and plutonium in military programs
• the large stocks of reactor-grade but weapons-usable plutonium
• ongoing production of HEU and plutonium and construction of new reprocessing plants to yield plutonium
The contrast is stark with the global negotiations on prevention of climate change that culminated in the Paris Agreement last December. While that agreement is only a start, at least its negotiators acknowledged and sought to address the reality of climate change in its entirety.
Also remarkable and deplorable is that the United States and the other nuclear-armed states are so far boycotting the 2016 United Nations Open-ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Negotiations on Nuclear Disarmament. Established by the General Assembly in late 2015 with the support of 138 countries, the Working Group is charged with discussing legal measures and norms needed to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons. Its next session will be held in Geneva in May.
The United States and five other nuclear-armed states (China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia) have additionally refused the Marshall Islands’ requests to defend their stances on nuclear disarmament before the International Court of Justice.
Referring to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to the long history of General Assembly resolutions on nuclear disarmament, in a 1996 Advisory Opinion the Court unanimously concluded: “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 control.”
The Marshall Islands contends that the obligation applies universally, binding those few states (India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan) not party to the NPT, and further contends that all states possessing nuclear arsenals are failing to comply with the obligation.
Cases are proceeding against the India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. They are the only nuclear-armed states which have accepted the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice as to disputes involving other states, including the Marshall Islands, having likewise accepted the Court’s jurisdiction.
Hearings on preliminary issues were held in The Hague from March 7 to 16, and rulings by the Court on whether the cases will go forward to the merits are expected within the next six months.
The limited scope of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, and the nuclear-armed states’ resistance to the enterprise of nuclear disarmament in other forums, corrodes the international cooperation badly needed in the nuclear arena and as to climate and other urgent issues as well.
The world would have been far safer if this had been the fourth Nuclear Abolition Summit. It is past time for the United States, Russia, and other states to embrace and urgently implement a broader agenda to achieve without delay a world free of nuclear weapons.