05/01/2014 12:10 EDT | Updated 07/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Can This Tiny Nation Take Down the Nuclear Goliath?

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Get ready for the trial of the century -- a David versus Goliath court battle that would impress Erin Brockovich. The plaintiff: the Marshall Islands, a tiny Pacific nation that would fit into Vancouver Island 13 times over. The defendants: the United States and eight other global nuclear powers. The issue: saving the world from nuclear weapons.

On April 24, the Marshall Islands threw down the legal gauntlet, filing a lawsuit in a U.S. court alleging the U.S. is in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It's the first time in history a foreign nation will sue the U.S. in its own courts for failing to live up to its international treaty obligations. The Marshall Islands also asked the International Court of Justice to issue injunctions requiring the U.S., Russia, the United Kingdom, China, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea to begin nuclear disarmament negotiations within one year following the judgement.

Before the Marshall Islands went public with their legal challenge, we asked Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, and Rick Wayman of the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, about why they're going to court, and their chances of success. The foundation's legal teams are supporting the Marshallese.

Many of our generation see climate change as today's most imminent global threat. We did not grow up in the shadow of the Cold War, learning to hide under our school desks for nuclear attack drills. However, there are still an estimated 22,000 nuclear warheads on our planet -- 8,000 ready to launch at the push of a button. That's 700 times more destructive power than all the bombs dropped in World War Two put together.

The people of the Marshall Islands have a very personal dislike for nuclear weapons. From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. used parts of the Marshall Islands, like Bikini Atoll, for testing nuclear bombs. De Brum told us the U.S. used his village as a guinea pig to study the effects of radioactive fallout. As a child he was subjected to a battery of invasive medical tests by U.S. Army doctors after test bombs were detonated. De Brum said some islands in his nation are still uninhabitable, and will be for 12,000 years.

In 1970, the NPT came into force. Under the treaty, nations that did not yet have nuclear weapons agreed not to develop them. The five nations that already had nuclear weapons -- the U.S., Russia, U.K., France, and China -- agreed to work towards full nuclear disarmament. One hundred and eighty-nine nations signed the treaty-more than have agreed to any other disarmament treaty. Unfortunately, signing a treaty is not the same as living up to it.

The Marshall Islands will argue in court there has been no progress on nuclear disarmament talks since the Reykjavik Summit in 1986. This, said Wayman, is a violation of NPT Article VI which states: "Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date."

At the core of the legal case is that term "in good faith." It means when the countries signed the treaty, they were sincere in their commitment to nuclear disarmament. However, Wayman said they haven't moved forward on disarmament talks. And while powers like the U.S. and Russia have not expanded their nuclear arsenals, they continue to modernize them. This, said Wayman and de Brum, is not showing good faith.

"I think they're quite comfortable having nukes. It's a security blanket -- a way of viewing the world that is quite disconnected from the consequences of using those weapons," Wayman lamented.

Wayman believes there is a good chance of winning the case in the U.S. court. He said they have the backing of the U.S. Constitution, which states the U.S. must abide by any international treaty ratified by the Senate. The U.S. has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit in its own courts, and the case could take up to two years.

Getting injunctions from the International Court will be more difficult. Only India, Pakistan and the U.K. accept the jurisdiction of the International Court, so only they will have to appear in court. The other six can choose to ignore the "invitation" of the Court, meaning those cases would never go to trial. However, de Brum and Wayman believe even if those six refuse to appear in court, it will still be a global public relations victory they can use to shame the powers into starting disarmament negotiations.

Needless to say, as this courtroom drama plays out we will be rooting for the underdog. But it will be with a certain sense of shame. Why has it fallen to one of the world's smallest nations to take leadership on nuclear disarmament? And why isn't Canada playing a role?

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit


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