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An amicus brief for the world

September 24, 2014

Back in April, the Republic of the Marshall Islands sued the United States in the Federal District Court in San Francisco on the grounds that it had failed to fulfill its nuclear disarmament obligations under international law. A parallel lawsuit naming all nine nuclear-armed States was launched in the International Court of Justice on the same day. The Marshall Islands, whose people suffered through more than a decade of nuclear testing by the US, has asked the courts to rule that the US and the other eight are legally required to comply with their obligations, established either under the NPT or customary international law.

The US government, to no one’s surprise, asked the federal court to dismiss the case. Last month, IPPNW, its US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Pax Christi International submitted an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief advising the court it should do no such thing.

Amicus briefs are intended to provide a court with independent, expert information about the facts of a case, although they often support one side or the other in practice. The US has claimed that the Marshall Islands has no standing to bring this case in the US court, so one purpose of the IPPNW/PSR/Pax Christi brief is to show that “the risk of nuclear war, either intentional or accidental, poses a substantial risk of injury sufficient to give [the] plaintiff standing.”

The brief then goes on to describe the dangers of reliance on a policy of nuclear deterrence; the record of near misses and miscalculations that could have led to the failure of deterrence or to an “accidental” nuclear war at any time over the past several decades; and the humanitarian consequences of such a failure. Using IPPNW’s nuclear famine findings as the primary example, the brief informs the court that the damage to the atmosphere, to agriculture, and to food production from a nuclear war involving 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs “will put up to two billion innocent people far from the warring states at risk of famine and death by starvation.”

The conclusion, though legalistic (and maybe that’s part of the reason), is chilling: “Contrary to the government’s claims, plaintiff is presently at risk of a nuclear exchange whose consequences will be catastrophic” (emphasis added).

We are all presently at risk of a nuclear exchange whose consequences will be catastrophic. In a sense, that makes the Marshall Islands lawsuit an amicus brief for the entire world.

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