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A tiny nation’s big challenge to Trident

The Marshall Islands – with a population of a mere 70,000 – is taking a stand that could force a change in UK policy and ultimately benefit the whole world, writes Dan Barron

April 21, 2015
8 min read

In April 2014, the government of the Marshall Islands announced that it would be taking nine nations – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK and the US – to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague over their possession of nuclear weapons. The case against the UK was presented in March this year.

The Marshallese have paid a heavy price for other countries’ nuclear weapons. After the second world war, they were incorporated into the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands administered by the US. The administering government was given a duty to prepare the territory for independence – which was not fully achieved until 1990. In the meantime, during the period 1946-1958, the Marshall Islands were the location for 67 US nuclear tests that exposed inhabitants to such severe levels of radiation that the effects are still being felt today.

Among the 67 was the largest nuclear device ever detonated by the US, in an operation known as Castle Bravo in 1954. The bomb, dropped on Bikini Atoll, was three times more powerful than expected and caused huge radiation poisoning to the occupants of nearby islands and a Japanese fishing vessel in the area. The supposedly secret test quickly became an international incident that prompted calls for a ban on the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Fallout reached India, Japan, Australia, the south-western USA and even parts of Europe. Its impact, in terms of aborted foetuses and birth defects, is still felt today.

The case against the UK

On 17 March 2015, the Marshall Islands foreign minister, Tony De Brum, handed the ICJ a memorandum, outlining in detail his nation’s case against the UK government. Although the Marshallese initially attempted to arraign all nine nuclear states at the ICJ, the case is only currently progressing with India, Pakistan and the UK, the three nuclear-armed countries that accept the ICJ’s jurisdiction. The Indian and Pakistani governments have raised objections leading to a stalling of their respective cases, but so far the UK government has not. The UK is in the unique position of being the only one of the nine states in question that has both accepted the jurisdiction of the ICJ and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Remarkably, the Marshall Islands are not pursuing further compensation (the nation received around £500 million between 1956 and 1999). Rather, in the words of Tony De Brum, they are ‘fulfilling a moral and legal mandate as members of the [NPT] treaty and as people who have experienced the horrors of nuclear contamination’.

The Marshall Islands’ demand is that Britain’s fulfills its obligations to the NPT, specifically related to Article VI, which states that the nuclear states must take steps to negotiate towards disarmament ‘in good faith’.

Speaking in New York last year, De Brum outlined his motivation: ‘What we hope to achieve is a nuclear-free world. It is sometimes said we are too small and insignificant to make an impression on those who make those decisions.’ However, it was incumbent upon the Marshallese to remind the nuclear states that it ‘is necessary for them to own up to their promise to reduce nuclear weapons on this earth’.

The UK has until mid-December to respond. In theory, it could be facing a trial at The Hague as early as 2016.

Trident renewal

All this comes at a significant time for the UK. Our leaders are due to make a decision on the renewal of Trident in 2016. The international community is growing tired of the nuclear states’ inaction on disarmament and some agitation for a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons is already in the pipeline.

The Austrian government is currently leading the way with the ‘Austrian Pledge’, adopted at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December 2014. This commits signatories to work to ‘stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks’.

The UK will attend a conference on the NPT in May 2015 with almost nothing to say for itself. Since the conference will take place alongside the general election, the delegation will have no official position. This is not likely to win any favours among those nations already disgruntled that the UK government is, so far, not engaging on disarmament.

So what does this mean for the nuclear disarmament movement here in Britain? Could the Marshall Islands’ case provide an opportunity for the international community and UK civil society to push for the non-renewal of Trident?

After the election

Much hinges on what government is elected in May. The Tories are unwavering in their support for a like-for-like replacement of Trident, which would cost £100 billion over the next 30 years. Labour is hesitant about saying anything different publicly. The Lib Dems favour taking ‘a step down the nuclear ladder’ and scrapping the current policy of continuous at-sea deterrence. The Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP are agreed on unconditional opposition to nuclear weapons in any form.

Anything other than a Tory government would leave open the possibility of pursuing a different policy on nuclear weapons, with Labour certainly having to negotiate Trident policy if it requires the support of the SNP to form a government. With the international community already putting the spotlight on the nuclear states, a major international court case in which the UK government stands trial in The Hague would provide an opportunity for campaigners here to push the government towards a new position.

Public opinion will play a significant role in determining which way the cards fall. Five million have signed a petition in support of the Marshall Islands’ case. A WMD Awareness poll in the UK last year showed that 51 per cent were against renewing Trident like-for-like and a further 26 per cent were undecided.

Small in number though the Marshallese may be, they may prove to be not too small or insignificant to help bring about an important shift towards a nuclear-free world.

Swords into ploughshares 2.0

‘That’s all very good, but what about the jobs?’ It’s an argument all of us have come across when debating the arms industry, writes Andrew Smith. We are forever being told that the arms trade may be undesirable, but ‘if we didn’t do it someone else would’, and that it’s a necessary evil if the UK is to maintain a strong manufacturing base.

The reality is that the number of jobs in the arms industry is in long-term decline. In the words of its own trade association ADS (Aerospace, Defence, Security and Space), it is ‘flatlining at best‘. ADS estimates that the number of people employed in military exports in the UK is around 55,000, less than 0.2% of the workforce.

Campaign Against Arms Trade’s ‘Arms to Renewables’ project aims to counter the propaganda of politicians and arms companies and offer positive alternatives to militarism and war.

At £37 billion, the UK has the sixth-largest military budget in the world. There are a number of sectors that would be grateful recipients of displaced arms industry workers and this level of investment, but we focused our research on renewable energy for two main reasons.

The first is the threat posed by climate change. Millions of people already face food and water shortages. Extreme weather events, flooding and droughts will displace populations and create conflict over resources. If we really want a safer world, we must cut carbon emissions fast. Fortunately, the UK is in a strong position to play its part, with the largest wind resources in Europe and substantial wave and tidal resources.

The second reason for favouring renewable energy is that the industry is being held back by a major skills shortage. This means we are missing out on large numbers of supply chain jobs. For example, only a quarter of the parts that make up UK wind turbines are produced in this country.

Like arms, the renewable energy sector is highly skilled. It has a similar breakdown across broad categories of skill levels and employs many of the same branches of engineering. With the right investment and support, thousands of new skilled jobs could be made available.

Since arms trade jobs are paid for by taxpayers, resources can be redirected. Shifting priorities would secure green jobs for the future and improve human security rather than threaten it. Unfortunately the government does not share this priority. In 2013 it spent 25 times more on arms research and development (£1.46 billion) than it did on R&D for renewable energy (£58.6 million).

The Unite union has suggested that in the event of Trident being removed from its current base on the Clyde – one of the key demands of the pro-independence movement, and one with majority backing in Scotland – any such decision should be complemented by ‘the creation of a Scottish defence diversification agency to help offset the employment impact’. With a wider brief, such an agency could be established to examine alternative work for others currently employed in the arms trade.

A similar argument was made in 1976 when workers at Lucas Aerospace published an Alternative Plan for the future of the corporation (see Red Pepper Oct/Nov 2009). Around half of Lucas’s output was dependent on military contracts and the employees argued that as these were dependent on public funds the money could be better spent on developing more socially useful products. Neither the government nor the company had the political will to turn the plan into action, but the initiative highlighted the potential for redirecting investment and winning the support of arms trade workers for doing so.

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