The Nuclear Challenge (9): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Nuclear Zero Litigation
[Prefatory Note: Two prior posts, The Nuclear Challenge (1) & (2) address indirectly the efforts of international law and lawyers to highlight the clash between international law and nuclear weapons. In this post I combine a focus on international law with a continuation of the inquiry into the role of civil society activism that was the theme of The Nuclear Challenge (8). Here I attempt a more concrete gaze at the promise and limitations of international law as a policy instrument available to governments and citizens committed to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Zero Lawsuits filed by the Republic of the Marshall Islands on April 24, 2014 provide an occasion for such an appraisal. This litigation reflects opposed counter-currents. It is both an encounter with geopolitical nuclearism and a mode of global consciousness-raising at a time of dangerous complacency about the threats posed by the continuing possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry, as well as the warping of the security mind by supposing that human security can ever be ethically and effectively safeguarded by current strategic thinking surrounding the varying roles assigned to this weaponry by the military planners and political leaders of the nine nuclear weapons states. The text below contains some revisions and corrections of the original post, mainly reflecting my attempt to take account of constructive feedback.]
From the time of the atomic explosions at the end of World War II there have been two contradictory sets of tendencies at work: the repudiation of the weaponry and its contemplated uses as ultimate criminality and the secret feverish refinement of the weaponry to enhance its precision, destructive effects, battlefield capabilities, and delivery systems. To date, the latter tendency has prevailed, but so far, contrary to the worst fears, avoiding uses (but not without unlawful threats to use, think tank proposals for use, and high alert international crises containing unseemly dangers of nuclear war).
From the beginning international law was a tool relied upon by those who challenged the legitimacy of both the atomic attacks themselves and the later developments and doctrines associated with the weaponry and its central role in the superpower rivalry at the core of the Cold War. In the immediate aftermath of the atomic attacks on Japan, there were many governmental pronouncements in the West about nuclear disarmament as an imperative of human survival, and it was widely assumed in the public that international law through the medium of a negotiated treaty containing procedures to assure compliance by all parties was the correct approach to unconditional declearization and principled repudiation of the weaponry, and this remains the consensus view of pro-disarmers at present.
Especially the UN General Assembly from the outset of the nuclear age was a political venue within which the criminality of the weaponry was confirmed, although gradually the impact of nuclear geopolitics moved disarmament off-stage and shifted policy attention to the supposedly more realistic goals of managing the nonproliferation regime and minimizing the spread of the weaponry. As discussed in previous posts, whatever political energy for a world without nuclear weaponry existed has been transferred over time to a variety of civil society venues. During the Cold War, Europe was the most likely military theater for a nuclear confrontation, accounting for a variety of anti-nuclear movements and initiatives. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain being the best known, but also the German Green Party gained anti-nuclear prominence. Since the end of the Cold War the most activist anti-nuclearism has been associated with advocacy and educational efforts that were oriented around the presumed authoritativeness of international law as reinforced by political commitment and international morality in two major respects:
–the unconditional unlawfulness of the weaponry with respect to threat, use, deployment, possession, and development;
–a reliance on a treaty-making approach to achieve nuclear disarmament by carefully calibrated stages, and subject to monitoring, verification, compliance, and dispute settlement procedures, and containing robust response mechanisms in the event of non-compliance or cheating.
In other words, both the case against all facets of nuclearism as presently operative and the framework proposed for its elimination through a process of total denuclearization are both guided and governed by international law.
At the same time, there are difficulties with an uncritical acceptance of this centrality of international law. First, the evidence is strong that the nuclear weapons states, above all the United States, will not override its security policies as related to nuclear weapons or other vital concerns of foreign policy out of deference to international law. This official lawlessness exists even in the face of assessments of international law enjoying the strong backing of the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial body. The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the ICJ reached two conclusions that should have led to operational adjustments in the announced doctrine and political behavior of governments possessing nuclear weapons: (1) nuclear weapons were only lawfully usable, if ever, when the survival of the state was credibly at issue; and (2) a unanimous views among the judges that the nuclear powers had a good faith obligation to negotiate both an end to the arms race and a disarmament plan, and what is more, and should not be overlooked, that these governments had “an obligation..to bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.”
True, this was an advisory opinion, not formally binding on the parties, leading to diverse views as to legal weight of the findings. Also it was the case that the ICJ judges were badly divided, with a slim majority (and even that resting on the President’s second casting vote to break a tie) favoring the view of conditional unlawfulness of the weaponry. Actually, the unlawfulness side was stronger than it seemed by looking only at the vote on the central finding of severely qualified legality as three of the ICJ judges were so committed to unconditional unlawfulness that they refused to support the majority conclusion, which was deliberately made consistent with a very narrowly construed deterrence doctrine. What is more notable is that the nuclear weapons states paid not the slightest operational attention to what these most distinguished judges from the world’s main legal system had determined in the only systematic international review of the arguments about legality that had gone on since the first atomic explosion in wartime (a persuasive national review was set by a Japanese court in the important Shimoda case) . This disdain for the relevance of international law was apparent even before the ICJ issued its advisory opinion, taking the form of the vigorous opposition led by the United States to the General Assembly referral of the question of legality to the World Court, insisting, in effect, that a judicial interpretation of international law was not relevant to the status of nuclear weapons. The substantive claim being made was that the U.S. Government was as it was doing all that it could reasonably do to reduce risks of nuclear war, through arms control, nonproliferation, and deployment policies. Any more foundational judgment was thus deemed inappropriate and misleading. Further, that the ICJ was a judicial body not equipped to evaluate security policy, and thus at best relying on ‘moral’ and ‘political’ considerations couched in legal language.
The same line of reasoning was relevant with respect to the second conclusion relating to the NPT obligation to negotiate in good faith and with an end in view. What was already being done supposedly fulfilled the Article VI obligation of the nuclear weapons states, and the Court had neither the information or the expert competence to pronounce otherwise, although the judges unanimously acted as if they did have the needed knowledge, and hence an institutional responsibility to pronounce their views as to the legality of nuclear weaponry and the requirements of compliance with the NPT.
I think a clear picture evolves. The nuclear weapons states accord primacy to geopolitical policies when in tension with international law, especially on crucial issues bearing on the conduct of warfare and the shaping of peacetime security policies. The geopolitical consensus accepted by all nine weapons states is to disregard or sideline the purported relevance of international law. In reaction to this consensus there is some huffing and puffing by nonnuclear governments, but no political will to mount a challenge on even such a tangential issue as non-compliance with the Article VI obligation, a clear material breach of the NPT. This combination of geopolitical nuclearism and passivity by the members of international society other than ‘the nuclear nine’ has meant that it is up to each of this latter group of states, as a matter of sovereign discretion, to determine what its policies on deployment, threat, and use will be, and whether it will agree or not to specific arms control measures. And because government security policies are treated as the most carefully guarded of all state secrets, there is no meaningful democratic participation, including even by most elected or appointed government officials, and neither knowledge nor leverage by the citizenry. Every government possessing nuclear weapons is authoritarian, with only the head of state having the non-reviewable and unaccountable authority to decide whether and when to use nuclear weaponry against which targets and with what magnitudes of destructive power.
Left to carry on the campaign to rid humanity of the nuclear menace are the disparate and somewhat incoherent forces of civil society as receiving varying degrees of encouragement from non-nuclear states. At times of global crisis, as occurred periodically during the Cold War, these forces from below can be aroused to sound a loud alarm that has some resonance at the political center, but mainly this kind of societal pressure demands prudence and restraint rather than compliance with international law, and gains satisfaction from tiny incremental moves taken to step back from the nuclear precipice. With the decline of anxieties about possible confrontations between major nuclear weapons states after the end of the Cold War, there is mostly evident a mainstream law emphasis on the ‘enforcement’ of the NPT directed at non-nuclear states perceived as seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.
Behind these developments, off to one side, are persevering efforts to insist on the unlawfulness of the weaponry and on gaining support for using the existing legal machinery of states and world society to push harder on the arguments of illegality. As has been pointed out, such efforts even if successful, are unlikely to make the steep climb up the geopolitical mountains on top of which are located the nuclear weapons arsenals. Yet that does not make the struggle to empower law with respect to nuclear weaponry without meaning or irrelevant to a survivable future. The outcome of the ICJ Advisory Opinion on legality, despite the unwelcome outcome of being defiantly deflected by the nuclear weapons states, did have the positive effects of strengthening the political will and morale of anti-nuclear activists and their organizations throughout the world, and even making non-nuclear governments more aware that the nuclear nine were not fulfilling their part of the NPT bargain.
One notable expression of this heightened political will was the initiation of litigation in ICJ and American federal courts by the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) based on the alleged treaty failure to implement Article VI of the NPT by the nuclear weapons states that are parties to the treaty, and by customary international law for India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea (having withdrawn from the treaty in 2003) that are not. Such litigation was grounded in the unanimous conclusion of the ICJ that good faith obligation to negotiate a nuclear disarmament arrangement that needed to be brought to a conclusion. In the 19 years since the Advisory Opinion there have been persuasive confirmations that the nuclear nine were not at all disposed to seek nuclear disarmament, making it highly reasonable for any non-nuclear party to the NPT to mount such a legal argument based on non-compliance, and indeed material breach of treat obligations.
And what country, other than Japan, had a greater moral and political entitlement to do so than the Marshall Islands? RMI lacks a legal entitlement due to Compact of Free Association, and that creates a certain awkwardness in putting forward the allegations of non-compliance with the disarmament obligations of Article VI as the real motivation arising from the legacy, harm, and memories of the nuclear testing cannot be relied upon it putting forward its legal arguments. In an important respect the past matters less than the future, and the only reason to invoke RMI vicitimization as a result of the testing is to create a stronger atmosphere of receptivity in the International Court of Justice in deliberating on the subtleties of the jurisdictional controversy and to pay a deserved homage to those from RMI who paid such heavy costs due to the harm inflicted by the tests.
This archipelago of 1156 islands and islets occupying 750,000 square miles of ocean space in the Pacific was taken over from Japan by the United States after World War II, and formally given the status of Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (a political entity that included several other Pacific island groups) by the United Nations in 1947. The tiny population of 68,480 lives on 29 coral atolls. In a most dramatic betrayal of trust imaginable the United States used the Marshall Islands as the principal test site without consulting the indigenous population or seeking their consent. 67 atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted between 1946 and 1958. The largest was code named Castle Bravo and had an explosive magnitude of 15 megatons, which is 1000 times the force of the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a result of this nuclear testing the people of the Marshall Islands have endured a variety of severe harms, ranging from forced evacuation and displacement, radiation sickness that continues to be prevalent, and environmental damage that appears to be permanent. There is a mechanism that has allowed Marshall Islanders to gain compensation from the United States for harm that can be persuasively attributed to the nuclear tests, but at the cost of waiving the pursuit of claims elsewhere as a result of the Compact of Free Association linking RMI to the United States. This mechanism continues to operate as a consequence of the fact that the effects of exposure to high doses of radiation may now result in cancer or genetic defects for many years.
The legal theory behind the case rests on the legal proposition that the Marshall Islands in common with all other parties to the NPT have a legal right to insist on compliance with Article VI. This provides RMI with a basis for arguing that a legal dispute exists with the nuclear weapons states emanating from this alleged treaty breach. RMI contends also as with every state in the world that if a nuclear war occurs, it would be severely harmed as the detrimental effects would be global, impacting upon the security and wellbeing of the Marshall Islands, and indeed of all peoples living on the planet. For the case to be accepted for adjudication by the ICJ a majority of the 15 judges must agree that a ‘legal dispute’ exists between the complaining state and the states accused of being in breach. The wheels of international justice turn slowly, if at all, and it remains to be determined, and I can only hope that the legal team representing the RMI will convince enough of these judges sitting in The Hague to clear this high jurisdictional hurdle. Only then can the court proceed to hear arguments and render a judgment on the merits. This litigation before the ICJ if it goes forward will result in ‘a decision,’ which unlike the 1996 Advisory Opinion is obligatory, and can in theory be enforced by the Security Council acting under Article 94. Any enforcement attempt along these lines could be vetoed by one of the five permanent members, and almost certainly would be. The NPT gives states that are parties the legal option to bring a legal dispute before the ICJ, and every state in the world, including the four nuclear powers that are not parties to the NPT are allegedly also subject to its authority by way of customary international law, which may seem a stretch given the jurisprudential conservatism of the ICJ in the past. The legal reasoning supportive of this extension of customary international law is based on the proposition that the NPT has been so widely adhered to and so fundamental to world order that it has become binding whether or not a country is a party, that it is ‘a lawmaking treaty’ on matters vital to the wellbeing of humanity and that it is obligatory for the entire community of states.
This line of argument raises a complex jurisprudential issue for the ICJ as the legal reasoning goes against the earlier consensus that an attribute of national sovereignty is the option to remain outside of an international legal framework, and even to dissent from it. From the development of progressive international law, this litigation presents a great opportunity for the ICJ to align itself with the authority of international law in the area of war and peace, as well as with respect to global security and human wellbeing in the nuclear age.
The companion case filed by the Marshall Islands in a Federal District Court resulted in a dismissal on February 3, 2015 resting on the highly questionable notion that the alleged damage to the Marshall Islands was too speculative to qualify as a legal interest that a court of law should adjudicate, and that the issue raised was, in any event, precluded by judicial review as a result of the Political Question Doctrine (PQD), which has led past courts to dismiss international law claims bearing on national security and foreign policy.
Such dismissals invoked separation of powers reasoning and regressively ignores the relevance of international law to the lawfulness of foreign policy, which occurred in stages since the initial formulations of PQD in a period when recourse to war was not covered by international law. Unfortunately, PQD has been interpreted by American courts to mean that such issues are not for the courts to decide, but are matters of foreign policy that should be resolved within the exclusive domain of the executive branch. Accordingly, the judiciary should not venture an assessment of this kind of challenge to security policy even if formulated by reference to a treaty obligation, which the U.S. Constitution explicitly avows as ‘the supreme law of the land.’ This dismissal of the RMI initiative has been appealed to the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco for review and decision. The continuing invocation of PQD in cases of this kind is to restrict severely the prerogatives of the citizenry to ensure that their elected representatives uphold international law and accept the applicability of a global rule of law when it comes to foreign policy.
Whatever the eventual outcome of these parallel judicial initiatives, the cases have already had a significant civil society impact, which has been galvanized by the law suits, acting to raise public awareness of their potential importance. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has played a central role in this undertaking in the realm of public education. It has taken the lead in fashioning a consortium of more than 90 civil society organizations supportive of the litigation, and through its websites it has tracked the progress of the cases through the courts in a manner that is both educative and energizing. Whether this litigation can ignite the sort of transnational collaboration between governments and civil society organization in the manner that proved so successful in generating support for an anti-personnel land mines treaty and for the International Criminal Court remains to be seen. Such a positive outcome for an anti-nuclear grassroots and moderate government coalition can only be conjectured at this point, but such a result would be no more surprising than establishing the ICC over the objections of the world’s leading geopolitical actors.
These law suits have also brought much wider and overdue attention to the nuclear exploitation of the Marshall Islanders, as well as admiration for the willingness of this tiny stressed and subordinated polity to put forward such a controversial legal argument, especially considering that their own security and economic viability is so linked to the good will of the United States embodied in a paternalistic ‘compact’ (Compact of Free Association with the United States) that entered into force as the trust status was superseded in 1988 when the Marshall Island became “a presidential republic in free association with the United States.” In tangible terms this has meant that the United States has accepted responsibility for the defense and protection of the Marshall Islands and for granting a range of economic subsidies, and in exchange retains use of a missile test site on Kwajalein Atoll, undoubtedly a reminder of the years when the island group was the principal site for developing new generations of nuclear weaponry.
It is pathetic that it has taken so many decades to mount this very limited legal challenge to nuclearism and that the challenge is being made by this small and vulnerable republic while the rest of the governments throughout the world continue to sit on their hands while nuclearism remains essentially unchallenged. To remove all doubts as to its future expectations, the U.S. Government has budgeted $1 trillion over the next thirty years to keep its superior nuclear capabilities up to date so as to ensure its continuing dominance of the outer frontiers of nuclear security strategy. We can only at this stage be thankful to the RMI for embarking on these nuclear lawsuits, and wish that the judicial bodies given this great opportunity to apply international law in a manner directly related to the wellbeing, and indeed the survival, of humanity, will respond appropriately.