Unsettling Sovereignty: International Law, Nuclear Weapons, and the Racialization of US Power in Micronesia, 1941-1963

When and Where

Wednesday, September 28, 2022 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Room GSC 206
Goldring Student Centre
Hybrid event and Online via Zoom


Mary Mitchell, Assistant Professor, Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto


Abstract: Between 1946 and 1958, the Marshall Islands became a critical center of the United States’ nuclear weapons program. The United States detonated its largest and most powerful nuclear bombs in Native lands and waters, offshoring the mass-scale violence and risk of its signal weapons system. The Marshall Islands, however, were not a part of US territory. Working through the United Nations, US diplomats engineered a sui generis international status—strategic trusteeship—into which it placed Pacific islands seized from Japan during World War II. The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands became a novel legal zone of US empire uniquely tied to both nuclear weapons and international law and institutions. This presentation explores how this new, yet indeterminate status redefined relationships between race and Indigeneity, sovereignty, and technology before the worldwide cessation of US atmospheric nuclear blasting in 1963. Drawing on archival research in activists’ records, court files, United Nations records, Trust Territory records, and US government agency collections, the talk traces Islanders’ legal actions across several different forums. It examines how Islanders’ claims over damage to their bodies, ancestral atolls, and ways of life shaped and exposed the emerging contours of sovereignty at the intersection between Native, US, and international legal orders.