The Hague/New Delhi: Marshall Islands on Monday moved the UN's International Court of Justice in The Hague against India accusing it of failing to halt the nuclear arms race, evoking a sharp reaction from India which has written to the ICJ saying Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) provisions cannot be extended to it as a legal obligation.
The tiny South Pacific state began legal proceedings against India at the United Nations' highest court, as part of cases against three of the world's nuclear powers — India, Pakistan and the UK — in a bid to infuse new life into disarmament negotiations.
"The Republic of the Marshall Islands has instituted proceedings at the International Court of Justice against all nuclear weapon states, including India, contending breach of customary law obligations on nuclear disarmament flowing from Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"Government believes that given our consistent and principled position on the NPT, to which India is not a party to, NPT provisions cannot be extended to India as a legal obligation. India has written to the ICJ denying this contention and reiterating India's position of principle on
nuclear disarmament," External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Vikas Swarup said in New Delhi.
Hearings of the ICJ in this regard are to take place shortly, he added.
The Marshall Islands filed cases against all nine nations that have declared or are believed to possess nuclear weapons: the US, Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. But only the cases against the UK, India and Pakistan got to this preliminary stage as the other six declined to take part, according to the Marshall Islands' legal team.
Cases against Pakistan and Britain will start on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.
The Marshall Islands aims to shine a new spotlight on the global nuclear threat, its lawyers and representatives said Monday, as they remembered apocalyptic scenes after US-led tests in the 1950s.
"Several islands in my country were vaporised and others are estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years," Tony deBrum, a Marshall Islands government minister, told the court.
He remembered in particular the "Castle Bravo" test of 1 March, 1954, which he witnessed as a nine-year-old while fishing with his grandfather in an atoll, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the blast's epicentre.
"The entire sky turned blood red," deBrum recalled when US scientists exploded a hydrogen bomb, with a force 1,000 times stronger than the device dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
"Many died, or suffered birth defects never before seen and cancers as a result of contamination."
Judges at the International Court of Justice are holding a series of hearings over the next week-and-a-half to decide whether it is indeed competent to hear the lawsuits brought against India and Pakistan.
A third hearing against Britain, scheduled to start on Wednesday, will be devoted to "preliminary objections" raised by London.
The Marshall Islands alleges that despite their suffering, the world's nuclear powers have failed to comply with the terms of the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
They were "not fulfilling their obligations with respect to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."
Britain has signed the NPT, but not India and Pakistan.
The hearings are starting just days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un Friday ordered the country's nuclear arsenal to be readied for pre-emptive use at any time, causing global concern.
Pressure to cut arsenals
The Marshall Islands had sought to bring a case against nine countries: Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States.
Israel has never admitted to having nuclear weapons.
And the ICJ has only admitted three cases against Britain, India and Pakistan because they already recognised the ICJ's authority.
Despite not having signed the NPT, India and Pakistan had an obligation under "customary international law" to negotiate and eventually reduce their nuclear arsenals, Majuro's lawyers insisted.
"Contrary to the obligation to pursue in good faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament... India's conduct includes the quantitative build-up and improvement of its nuclear arsenal," deBrum said.
India's representatives declined to comment Monday and are to argue their case on Thursday, with follow-up hearings next week.
In 1996, the ICJ in another case issued a non-binding advisory opinion in which it urged the world's nuclear powers to negotiate and reduce their nuclear stockpiles.
But two decades later, very little progress has been made to cut the nuclear threat, observers attending the case told AFP.
The Marshall Islands therefore decided to sue the world's nuclear heavyweights as "it has a particular awareness of the dire consequences of nuclear weapons," it said in court papers.
Between 1946 and 1958 the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands including Bikini atoll, deBrum told the ICJ's judges.
"The Marshall Islands is on the right side of history... so there's a good chance that they will prevail," said Jacqueline Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation, a California-based anti-nuclear organisation.
"We don't know what's going to happen, but it will no doubt put some pressure on those states" to reduce their stockpiles, she added.
With inputs from agencies