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Korea nuclear crisis resonates with Pacific test survivors
11:38 pm GMT+12, 06/09/2017, Samoa

By Nic Maclellan (Islands Business magazine) in Apia, Samoa

The growing security crisis in the Korean peninsula serves as backdrop to this year’s Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa.

Daily headlines and tweets remind Forum delegates of the escalating threat to international peace: President Donald Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” on the Korean people; Kim Jong-un’s reckless boast that he’ll launch missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guahan (Guam), and the latest nuclear test by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

All this fire and fury resonates with people across the Pacific islands, who are living with the radioactive legacies of an earlier nuclear age. For fifty years between 1946 and 1996, the United States, Britain and France conducted more than 315 nuclear tests at ten sites across the region, from the deserts of South Australia to the islands of the central Pacific.

At last month’s Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting in Fiji, ministers “expressed their concern over the instability and current tensions on the Korean Peninsula which are the result of the illegal actions by North Korea, in violation of numerous UN Security Council resolutions. Ministers particularly expressed concern about the threat posed to Guam, which constitutes a threat to the wider Pacific region.”

For Sarah Thomas-Nededog, whose homeland is Guahan (Guam), the threats are very real.

“We live with that threat every day. There’s not an hour that goes by that I don’t think about what’s happening to my island. But whatever happens to Guam affects the Pacific. Embracing that concept of one Pacific is vital. I hope that people don’t feel we’re not part of the region, just because we’re a territory of the United States.”

Thomas-Nededog is attending the Pacific Islands Forum in Apia as Chair of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations (PIANGO). She participated in a dialogue session between civil society and Forum leaders earlier this week, with peace and security raised as one of three priority concerns.

As with Hawai’i and Kwajalein, her home island hosts crucial US military installations, including Apra Harbour Naval Base and Anderson Air Force Base. For Thomas-Nedebog, Kim Jong-un’s threats against the US military obscure the impact on local people.

“In the first news media that come out, it was constantly reported that there are 6,000 to 10,000 military personnel on Guam, so the United States should be concerned,” she said. “Well, there are more than 162,000 human beings on the island. Many are indigenous Chamorro. We’ve been fighting the increased militarisation of Guam and we’re still on the list for decolonisation at the United Nations.”  

Given its status as a US territory, the Guam representative in the US Congress is a non-voting delegate and Chamorro can’t vote for the US Presidency – a sad irony when President Trump’s regular tweets escalate the current crisis.

Forum leaders this week will condemn provocative North Korean ballistic missile tests. But for residents of the Marshall Islands, missile testing is a fact of life. The United States test fires intercontinental ballistic missiles from California to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Kwajalein missile range has also been the site for development and testing of the antiballistic missile systems now being deployed in Japan and South Korea against potential DPRK threats.

Nuclear compensation

President Hilda C. Heine heads the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) delegation at this year’s Forum. The first woman elected to lead an independent island nation, she is a strong voice for nuclear weapons abolition.

The United States conducted 67 atomic and hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini and Enewetak in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. The largest test, with a yield of 15 megatons, was the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb codenamed Bravo, on 1 March 1954.

On 1 March this year, speaking at the Nuclear Remembrance Day ceremony in Majuro, President Heine said: “We face the reality that, after the US nuclear weapons testing program first began with the moving of Bikinians from Bikini Atoll, seventy-one years of inconsolable grief, terror and righteous anger followed, none of which have faded with time.”

 “This is exacerbated by the United States not being honest as to the extent of radiation and the lingering effects the US nuclear weapons testing program have on our lives, ocean and land, and by the United States not willing to address the issue of adequate compensation as well as the radiological clean-up of our islands,” she said.

With full details yet to be revealed, it seems that North Korea’s latest nuclear test is a crucial step in the development of a two stage thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb.

But exactly sixty years ago this month, the United Kingdom conducted similar tests on the land of the indigenous Anangu people, at Maralinga in the deserts of South Australia. On 14 September 1957, under Operation Antler, Britain fired the first of three atmospheric to develop atomic triggers that could spark the fusion process for larger hydrogen bombs.

The UK government then used these atomic triggers for its hydrogen bomb testing program on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony – today, the independent nation of Kiribati.

Under Operation Grapple, the United Kingdom tested nine atomic and hydrogen bombs in Kiribati in 1957-8. The tests were witnessed by thousands of British military personnel based on Christmas Island, supported by hundreds of New Zealand sailors, Fijian soldiers and sailors and Gilbertese labourers living on the island. Today, many survivors are living with adverse health effects they attribute to radiation exposure (an independent medical study of the 551 NZ sailors, conducted by Professor Al Rowland of Massey University, has revealed significant chromosomal translocations and genetic damage).

Neighbouring indigenous communities still live with the consequences of those tests, and governments must cope with the radioactive pollution that impacts some atolls.

In 2000, the Marshall Islands government submitted a “changed circumstances” petition to the US Congress, seeking increased funding to pay compensation for damage to health and property. Under the provisions of the RMI Compact of Free Association with the United States, a Nuclear Claims Tribunal issued rulings for compensation amounting to more than US$2.3 billion. But this sum is far in excess of funds available through a Compact trust fund. To this day, the US Congress has failed to grant the extra funding needed to cover the Tribunal’s decisions.

The Forum Foreign Minister Meeting last month “expressed continued support for the government and people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in addressing the ongoing consequences of nuclear testing.” During this week’s Smaller Islands States (SIS) meeting in Apia, President Heine raised the issue of nuclear compensation, and will be seeking further support from other leaders.

With 2017 marking the 60th anniversary of the British hydrogen bomb tests in his country, Kiribati President Taneti Maamau says he stands with his fellow Micronesian leader.

“Concerning the compensation for the nuclear and war compensation that was raised by Madam President of the Marshall Islands, I gave my support on that, just like my other colleagues,” he said. “Knowing the Marshall Islands and also the French territories are facing this challenge, it is not only their challenge – it is the challenge of the Pacific.”   

“We also have this problem,” he added. “We have taken up the issue of Christmas Island with the proper authorities. On two occasions, there were also questions in parliament raised by MPs concerning war compensation, especially those islands affected during World War Two like Tarawa and Butaritari.”

As with the US tests in Marshall Islands and the British tests in Australia and Kiribati, indigenous people in French Polynesia are living with the health and environmental consequences of 193 French nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls.

Through the churches and organisations like Moruroa e Tatou – the association of former test site workers - the Maohi people of French Polynesia have been calling for clean-up of both atolls and compensation for the health effects of the French tests.

Long-time independence leader and former President Oscar Temaru is in Apia this week for the Pacific Islands Forum. After serving as a customs officer on Moruroa in his youth, he has long campaigned for the rights of nuclear survivors.

“In past years, there were problems of health and there are still problems of health. France ended its tests in 1996, but the radioactivity will linger for hundreds of years. The organisation Moruroa e Tatou, of which I’m a member, is campaigning for compensation. But I say, France serves as judge and jury on this matter. We must rely on the international community to push this along.”

French Polynesia is the newest member of the Pacific Islands Forum, and current President Edouard Fritch leads its official delegation to this week’s meeting in Samoa. President Fritch told Islands Business that he was open to discussing the issue of compensation for nuclear survivors with other Forum leaders:

“Why not, why not? In French Polynesia, we have the same problem with the French government. I think the moment has come to have an exchange about that, because this problem is crucial for the people of our country. In Tahiti, we say that the Americans were very generous and the French are not generous – or not generous enough!  I think we should have the same approach.”

Nuclear ban treaty

In the South Australian desert, Yami Lester was just 10 years old when the Totem 1 test exploded on 15 October 1953, near his home at Wallatinna. The winds carried dust into his eyes. Four years later, he lost all sight. In his autobiography, the Aboriginal leader described the effects of the British nuclear test:

“It was in the morning, around seven. I was just playing with the other kids. That’s when the bomb went off. I remember the noise. It was a strange noise, not loud, not like anything I’d ever heard before. The earth shook at the same time; we could feel the whole place move. We didn’t see anything, though. Us kids had no idea what it was. I just kept playing.”

The respected Yankunytjatjara elder died in Alice Springs on 21 July this year. Just weeks before his death, Lester’s daughter Karina travelled from the deserts of South Australia to the United Nations in New York. She joined other Pacific activists from Fiji, Marshall Islands and French Polynesia to lobby more than 120 nations negotiating the new Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

To great applause Karina Lester presented a petition from indigenous groups around Oceania, calling for the treaty to address the health and environmental legacies of testing in the Pacific. The treaty preamble now recognises “the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapon activities on indigenous peoples.”

Pacific government delegations lobbied hard for specific provisions to support nuclear survivors. This is now reflected in the final treaty, which requires state parties to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, as well as environmental remediation of contaminated areas.

The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by a vote of 122-1 on 7 July and opens for signature on 20 September. The treaty obliges state parties to provide international assistance to support the implementation of the treaty. Once 50 countries have ratified the treaty, it opens the way for larger countries to assist with remediation, clean-up and health programs in independent countries like Marshall Islands (as a French territory however, French Polynesia cannot sign the treaty).

From the Asia-Pacific region, Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa and many other island countries were actively involved in the negotiations.

Forum Island countries are now discussing whether to sign later this month, with Kiribati President Taneti Maamau telling Islands Business:  “Concerning our voting, that is a question for Cabinet to decide but yes, we’ll certainly consider the merits. But personally I would vote for measures discouraging war and nuclear issues.”  

Tahiti’s Oscar Temaru asked for other independent nations to act for his homeland: “As a French colony, we cannot sign. But I hope that Australia, New Zealand, all Forum countries, will sign this treaty. All the countries of the Pacific should sign this treaty, because nuclear testing affected all the countries of the Pacific.”

Australia and Japan boycotted the treaty negotiations, with their defence posture relying on extended nuclear deterrence by the United States. On 7 July, France, the United Kingdom and the United States issued a joint statement to condemn the treaty, stating “[we] have not taken part in the negotiation of the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it.”

Despite this, Forum island countries have existing commitments to keep the region free from nuclear weapons, based on the 1985 Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ).

The theme of this year’s Forum is “The Blue Pacific – Our Sea of Islands.” In his opening address, the host of this year’s Forum, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, linked the Blue Pacific oceans agenda to SPNFZ and the decades-old call for a nuclear free and independent Pacific.

“Forum leaders have collectively promoted peace and security within our shared ocean space,” he said. “Most notable in this regard, is the establishment of the Rarotonga Treaty in 1985 in which Leaders emphasised ownership of the bounty and beauty of the land and sea in the Pacific region. In so doing, they asserted their shared ocean geography to establish a nuclear free zone across the South Pacific.  

“While we may become an unwilling actor in the current tensions around the Pacific Rim, by virtue of our geography it may be pertinent to ask how our region can assert our geography as the basis for promoting regional and global peace, as was done with the Rarotonga Treaty.”

[Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan is author of “Grappling with the Bomb”, to be published by ANU Press in October].


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