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Opinion

March 15, 2016

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The Marshall Islands’ battle

On March 1, 1954 the United States of America conducted a hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The test, codenamed Castle Bravo, yielded an incredible 15-megatonnes of explosive power, which is a mindboggling 1,000 times more powerful than each of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the end of the Second World War.

As Annie Jacobsen’s recent book, ‘The Pentagon’s Brain’ graphically explains, the blast was so destructive that it exposed tens of thousands of people and countless sea creatures to radioactive fallout. The explosion destroyed most of the equipment used to evaluate the test, and vaporised an entire island. This was the most devastating of the 67 nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands by the US between 1946 and 1958.

The Marshallese have suffered for seven decades. Displaced by the tests and ill from the radioactive fallout, they have been trying to bring the world’s attention to the misery caused to them by nuclear weapons. In 2014, the Marshall Islands filed a case in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against China, Britain, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States, accusing them of “not fulfilling their obligations with respect to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

At the ICJ, the Marshallese argued that by continuing to proliferate and maintain nuclear arsenals, these countries are in violation of their obligations to work towards complete disarmament under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This week, of the nine accused, only Britain, Pakistan, and India will respond because the others do not recognise the ICJ’s authority. As per Article VI of the NPT, each party has committed to undertake effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.

Pakistan and India are not parties to the NPT and therefore are not obligated. That being said, Pakistan has repeatedly stressed that it will give up its nuclear weapons once its security concerns have been addressed and when genuine efforts are made towards universal and verifiable disarmament. Islamabad did not make the bomb for status, but to exercise its right under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

The need to deter India’s nuclear threat led to Pakistan’s weapons programme. The country has proposed a number of nonproliferation steps and confidence building measures to India over the years–but India consistently rejected their proposals. As India continues to move the ends of the nuclear threat spectrum, Pakistan is forced to respond by minimal but credible means. Pakistan has continually proven itself to be a responsible nuclear state, unlike India.

Pakistan has made more of an effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and put an end to the nuclear arms race than any other state that is not a signatory to the NPT. It works closely with organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency to do what it can to strengthen the cause of nonproliferation.

Even though it did not conduct nuclear tests in the Marshal Islands, being party to the NPT makes Britain’s case weak. The British face strong domestic resistance for their nuclear programme and the Marshallese’s case will accentuate those protests. In addition to being guilty under Article VI, London is also in violation of Articles I and II for their nuclear cooperation deal with India, a non-NPT state. The treaty binds its signatories to not share nuclear technology with non-NPT States. In striking a deal with India, like the US, Britain has proliferated and contributed to the unilateral arms race in the subcontinent.

As of January 6, 2016, there have been a total of 2,054 nuclear tests. According to the Washington DC based Arms Control Association, the US accounts for half of the total of 1,030 tests conducted. Russia accounts for 715 tests, the UK accounts for 45; France accounts for 210; China accounts for 45; North Korea accounts for four; India accounts for three; and Pakistan accounts for two.

According to the estimates of the Federation of American Scientists, another DC-based think-tank, there are 15,350 nuclear warheads in existence. The US and Russia collectively possess 14,200 warheads, which is more than 90 percent of the current global stockpile. If these numbers sound shocking, remember that during the Cold War, both countries had a collective stockpile of over 70,000 nuclear warheads.

The US and Russia began reducing their stockpiles after the Cold War. Even though they have made progress, it is quite clear that there will be very little further reduction in their nuclear stockpiles. In fact, both are set to make huge qualitative and quantitative improvements in their arsenals. Even though the Marshall Islands will not be able to force Britain, India, and Pakistan to disarm, the ICJ case is not a futile exercise. Through this case, they have shined a light on the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need for universal disarmament.

The Marshall Islands’ nuclear arms battle should be with the US and Russia. In fact, it should just be with the US because it was the United States that introduced nuclear weapons and conducted hundreds of tests irresponsibly, displacing tens of thousands of the Marshallese people and causing untold havoc on the environment.

The battle should be with the US because, as the sole superpower, the US continues to modernise its nuclear weapons. The battle should be with the US because, in addition to being guilty under Article VI, it has also violated Articles I and II of the NPT by securing an exemption for India, a non-NPT state, from the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s requirements – giving India unlimited access to the world’s uranium, helping India vertically proliferate and destroying the nonproliferation regime in the process.

If they hope to make universal disarmament a reality, the Marshall Islands’ nuclear arms battle should be with the United States.

The writer is an assistant professor at NUST in Islamabad.

Twitter: @umarwrites.

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