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Can a tiny Pacific island nation stop nuclear powers?

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The Peace Palace, seat of the International Court of Justice
The Peace Palace, seat of the International Court of Justice

The tiny Pacific republic of the Marshall Islands has filed suit against the United States and the eight other nuclear-armed countries, alleging that they haven't met their obligations in working toward global nuclear disarmament. The lawsuits were filed in US federal court and the International Court of Justice and aim to compel the nine nations to begin making a "good faith" effort toward disarmament, as many of them have agreed to do under the international Non-Proliferation Treaty. "The failure of these nuclear-armed countries to uphold important commitments and respect the law makes the world a more dangerous place," Nobel Peace Prize-winner archbishop Desmond Tutu says in a statement supporting the lawsuits.

"The continued existence of nuclear weapons … threatens us all."

The issue is of particular importance to the Marshall Islands, which was used as a nuclear test site by the United States during the 1940s and '50s in a total of 67 weapons tests. "Our people have suffered the catastrophic and irreparable damage of these weapons, and we vow to fight so that no one else on earth will ever again experience these atrocities," Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum says in a statement. The suits do not ask for compensation, only injunctions against the nine nations. "The continued existence of nuclear weapons and the terrible risk they pose to the world threatens us all," he says.

The other nuclear countries include Russia, China, the UK, and France, as well as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. It's worth noting that the latter grouping of countries are not actually signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the Marshall Islands poses that they're still held to its rules under international law. Additionally, only three of the nine — the UK, India, and Pakistan — must accept the jurisdiction of the international court. Collectively, the nine nuclear-armed countries are estimated to spend $1 trillion on their arsenals over the next decade, according to Nuclear Zero, a group promoting the lawsuits and global disarmament.

While the cases sounds shaky in some instances and outside of a proper jurisdiction in others, the Marshall Islands and Nuclear Zero appear to be using them as much as a direct route to disarmament as they are a way to bring attention to the cause and these countries' remaining arsenals. In particular, the groups involved appear to be most interested in placing pressure on the United States. "President Obama has said that ridding the world of these devastating weapons is a fundamental moral issue of our time," Tutu says. "It is time for the United States to show true leadership by keeping the promises set forth in the Non-Proliferation Treaty."