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Top UN court rejects Marshall Islands' nuclear case against India, Pakistan

The UN's highest court on Wednesday threw out an epic case brought by the tiny Marshall Islands against India and Pakistan for allegedly failing to halt the nuclear arms race.

Moments after rejecting the case against India, the 16-judge bench at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in separate decision ruled that the Pacific island nation's David-versus-Goliath battle could not continue against Pakistan.

The archipelago is seeking to shine a fresh spotlight on the global threat of nuclear weapons.

This file photo taken by the US Defense Nuclear Agency in 1980 shows the huge dome, which had just been completed over top of a crater left by one of 43 nuclear blasts, expected to last 25,000 years, capping off radioactive debris from nuclear tests over Runit Island in Enewetak in the Marshall Islands. AFP

The huge dome built over top of a crater left by one of 43 nuclear blasts, capping off radioactive debris from nuclear tests over Runit Island in Enewetak in the Marshall Islands. AFP

But in a majority verdict by nine votes to seven "the court upholds the objection to jurisdiction raised by India," presiding judge Ronny Abraham said, and therefore the tribunal "cannot proceed to the merits of the case."

The tribunal, set up to resolve rows between nations, found it lacked the jurisdiction in the case as there had been no prior recorded dispute or negotiations over the nuclear issue between the Marshall Islands and the nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.

The tiny Pacific island nation was ground zero for a string of nuclear tests on its pristine atolls between 1946-58, carried out by the United States as the Cold War arms race gathered momentum.

Initially in 2014, Majuro accused nine countries of failing to comply with the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which seeks to inhibit the spread of atomic bombs.

But the ICJ already failed to take up cases against the other countries — China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia and the United States — as they have not recognised the court's jurisdiction.

Israel has also never formally admitted to having nuclear weapons.

The Marshall Islands has maintained that by not stopping the nuclear arms race Britain, India and Pakistan continued to breach their obligations under the treaty — even if New Delhi and Islamabad have not signed the pact.

The treaty commits all nuclear weapon states "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

Majuro is calling for nuclear powers to take "all necessary measures" to carry out what it considers to be their obligations under the treaty.

'Islands vaporised'

At a March hearing, Majuro's lawyers painted a vivid picture of the horrors seen after 67 nuclear tests were carried out on Bikini and Enewetak atolls.

"Several islands in my country were vaporised and others are estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years," Tony deBrum, a former Marshall Islands foreign minister, told the court.

The so-called "Operation Castle" tests in March and April 1954 were particularly devastating and resulted in massive contamination because of the nuclear fall-out.

"The entire sky turned blood-red," said deBrum, who witnessed the explosion of the largest-ever US-built nuclear device called "Castle Bravo" as a nine-year-old boy.

Critics have argued however that the ICJ action is a distraction and that the islanders' real fight is with Washington, which carried out the tests in their backyard.

They contend that the case has no relation to the victims' claims for increased compensation, better health care and clean-ups to render the sites habitable again.

Experts however say the islands hoped the three cases before the ICJ will thrust nuclear disarmament talks, which have stalled over the past two decades, back into the spotlight.

Even if the case has no direct impact, the Marshall Islands' residents "perhaps feel that the more the difficulties with nuclear weapons are brought to the public consciousness, the better," said Jens Iverson, assistant professor of Public International Law at Leiden University.

"They may hope that the world may become a safer place," Iverson told AFP.

With inputs from AFP

Updated Date: Oct 05, 2016 16:13 PM

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