PARADISE LOST: On March 1, 1954, the United States tested its most powerful nuclear device at the time, a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb (1,000 more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that detonated at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The test was meant to be a secret, and islanders who suffered radiation sickness from the fallout weren't evacuated until three days later.
Courtesy NAPF

Federal attorneys have made their first big move to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges the United States, along with eight other countries, has violated a 46-year-old treaty to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. The lawsuit was filed in April — in U.S. Federal Court as well as in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands — by the the tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands, which the U.S. bombarded with nuclear weapons tested between 1946 and 1958. Marshall Islands officials maintain that radioactive fallout from the tests sickened citizens and rendered some territories unlivable.

“Our people have suffered the catastrophic and irreparable damage of these weapons,” said Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum in May, “and we vow to fight so that no one else on Earth will ever again experience these atrocities.” The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was signed in 1968 and mandates that the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea “pursue negotiations in good faith” to end the nuclear arms race “at an early date and to work toward worldwide nuclear disarmament.”

Attorneys for the Marshall Islands — and with the law firm Keller Rohrback LLP, which has an office in Santa Barbara and specializes in constitutional and treaty law — argue that the countries have instead increased and modernized their nukes over the decades. Santa Barbara’s Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF) is a consultant to the Marshall Islands on the legal and moral issues involved in the case, which has received attention all over the globe and the support of Nobel Prize winners.

In the fed’s Motion to Dismiss, which can be read at the bottom of this story, the government claims the lawsuit should be thrown out because of procedural and jurisdictional issues. “The U.S. … does not argue that the U.S. is in compliance with its NPT disarmament obligations,” the NAPF explained in a prepared statement. “Instead, it argues in a variety of ways that its non-compliance with these obligations is, essentially, justifiable, and not subject to the court’s jurisdiction.”

Laurie Ashton, lead attorney for the Marshall Islands, stated this week: “The U.S. government assumes, as it must at this stage in the case, that the U.S. is in breach of its promises under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nonetheless, the U.S. government argues that there is no legal remedy for those breaches — either because the breaches cause no harm or because the breaches raise only political issues, or because the Marshall Islands waited too long to complain in court about the breaches. These disappointing arguments hammer at the very foundation of every treaty to which the U.S. is a party, and the courts should reject them.”

David Krieger, president of NAPF, also issued this statement about the federal filing: “The U.S. government is sending a terrible message to the world — that is, that U.S. courts are an improper venue for resolving disputes with other countries on U.S. treaty obligations. The U.S. is, in effect, saying that whatever breaches it commits are all right if it says so. That is bad for the law, bad for relations among nations, bad for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament — and not only bad, but extremely dangerous for U.S. citizens and all humanity.”

Krieger continued, “In 2009, President Obama shared his vision for the world, saying, ‘So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.’ This lawsuit provides the perfect opportunity for President Obama to move his vision forward. Yet, rather than seizing that opportunity, the U.S. government is seeking dismissal without a full and fair hearing on the merits of the case.”

Federal attorneys did not immediately return requests for comment.

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