The Pacific Islands have long been at the forefront of global nuclear disarmament efforts. Afflicted by hundreds of nuclear and radioactive material tests by powerful nuclear weapons states from 1946 to 1996, Pacific countries came together to create a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) through the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty of Rarotonga in 1985. Even as the region continues to suffer the intergenerational human and environmental effects of those nuclear tests, Pacific states have made continuous efforts toward keeping the region free from nuclear weapons. In recent years, however, they find themselves navigating the escalating geopolitical competition and growing militarism of major powers. The aggravating climate crisis has also brought urgency to the question of nuclear risks and safety.
On Tuesday, November 28 2023, APLN hosted an in-person side event at the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW2MSP) on Strengthening a Nuclear-Free Pacific Region. Experts from the region came together to discuss how contemporary nuclear policies of nuclear weapons states pose serious challenges for the Pacific region and what can be done to strengthen the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone.
To view the event on ICAN’s website, click here.
Ecumenical Enabler for Climate Justice, Pacific Conference of Churches
Co-Coordinator, Nuclear Truth Project & Board Member, ICAN Australia
Pacific Research Fellow, Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Adelaide
Associate Professor, Department of Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Senior Research Adviser, Asia-Pacific Leadership Network
Policy Fellow, Asia-Pacific Leadership Network
O’Donnell: On behalf of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, or APLN for short, we would like to welcome you to this special panel on “Strengthening a Nuclear-Free Pacific Region,” featuring experts from the region. The Pacific Islands have long been at the forefront of global nuclear disarmament efforts, having suffered the intergenerational human and environmental effects of hundreds of nuclear and radioactive material tests by nuclear weapons states from 1946 to 1996. The 1985 South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty stands as a landmark rejection of nuclear weapons, nuclear testing, and dumping radioactive wastes and materials in the region. However, more recently, the Pacific Islands have also been subject to the escalating geopolitical competition and growing militarism of major powers, under the logic of great power competition. The Pacific Islands are also extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which brings added urgency to the question of nuclear risks and safety and underlines the importance of articulating a concept of security which reflects actual human needs, and which rejects a security based upon the possession of nuclear weapons – and the threat of their use.
This is an important part of APLN’s work. APLN is an independent organization and network of over 150 former and serving political, military, diplomatic leaders, and senior experts from 20 countries across the Asia-Pacific working to address defense and security challenges in the region, with a focus on reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons risks. We are grateful to the organizers of the Second Meeting of States Parties for hosting us. I’ll now turn to my colleague Elaine Natalie, Policy Fellow at APLN, to discuss our Voices from Pacific Island Countries project in more detail and introduce the panelists.
Natalie: Thank you, Frank. In July of last year, APLN launched a project titled “Nuclear Disarmament and the Anthropocene: Voices from Pacific Island Countries” with the support of Ploughshares Fund. This project aims to help amplify voices from the Pacific that highlight the inequities and injustices of past and present nuclear weapons policies and practices that exacerbate existential risks, including climate change. Together with other individuals, organizations, and civil society groups across the Pacific Islands, we hope to help raise global awareness of the shared responsibility to address human and environmental security challenges in the region.
In the first year of the project, we hosted a Pacific Islands Creative Competition on “Nuclear Weapons and the Climate Crisis,” published reports and videos highlighting the detrimental impacts that nuclear weapons policies, practices, and climate change have had on the Pacific region and communities, and organized a panel on “Pacific Islands and Disarmament” at the Tenth Meeting of the CSCAP Study Group on Nonproliferation and Disarmament (NPD) in the Asia-Pacific. In this second year, we are delighted to be able to organize this panel at the 2MSP, and we are also planning to publish more analytical papers and interpretive essays by experts in the Pacific over the next several months.
Now, I would like to introduce our distinguished panel of experts, in the order in which they’ll speak. First, we have Bedi Racule, Ecumenical Enabler for Climate Justice at the Pacific Conference of Churches and steering committee member of the Nuclear Truth Project. Bedi hails from the Marshall Islands and Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, with links to Hawaii and Fiji. She will be graduating with a postgraduate degree in Development Studies from the University of the South Pacific, where she also served as president of MISA4thePacific, a grassroots youth nuclear justice organization. Bedi is also one of the winners of our Pacific Islands Creative Competition, and was part of our panel on “Pacific Islands and Disarmament” at the CSCAP Study Group on Nonproliferation and Disarmament earlier this year.
Next, we have Dimity Hawkins, Australian nuclear-free activist and researcher, currently a Co-Coordinator of the Nuclear Truth Project. She was also a Co-Founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and remains an active Board Member of ICAN Australia. Her work centers on advocacy for nuclear abolition, particularly alongside affected community members and civil society partners. Her research focuses on the history of nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. Dimity was awarded an Order of Australia Honour in 2019 for “significant service to the global community as an advocate for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.” Dimity is also currently working on a paper for us with Dr. Jim Green on the Politics of Nuclear Waste Disposal: Lessons from Australia.
Then, we have Maima Koro, Pacific Research Fellow for the Regional Perspectives Project, a research collaboration between the University of Adelaide with Pacific partners. Hailing from Tokelau and Samoa, Maima has over 20 years of international development experience in the Pacific at national and regional levels. She is also pursuing PhD studies, focusing on the intersection of security and justice in Pacific communities. Maima is also the author of a report we published earlier this year on the concept of relational security and the ethical dilemmas of geopolitics in the Pacific.
Finally, we have Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, Associate Professor in the Department of Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai’i. Tara’s current research and publications focus on geopolitical competitions and the Pacific Islands. He previously worked at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and the East-West Center in Honolulu. Hailing from the Solomon Islands, he received his PhD from the Australian National University. Tara is also currently working on a paper for us on the theme of this event—strengthening a nuclear-free Pacific region.
So each panelist has about 10 minutes to give their remarks, and then we’ll open the floor to Q&A and discussions. Without further ado, Bedi, please go ahead.
Racule: Iakwe, Kaselelie, and Pacific greetings all, it is a pleasure to be speaking at this event today to discuss the strengthening of a nuclear free Pacific region. I would like to thank APLN for organizing this event and supporting my attendance at the 2MSP.
My name is Bedi Racule and I am a daughter of Oceania from the Marshall Islands and Pohnpei state in the Federated States of Micronesia. And I am also a nuclear justice campaigner and ecumenical enabler for climate justice at the Pacific Conference of Churches.
“Tiny, isolated, and sparsely populated…” This was and continues to be the characterization of the Pacific islands by colonial powers. This perspective differs vastly from the way that Pacific islanders view their Oceanic home – a massive network of vibrant islands and coral atolls, connected through a vast and abundant ocean. This unfortunate difference of perspectives has resulted in one of the most dangerous forms of environmental racism which has spanned decades, causing destruction to health, environments and the well-being of multiple generations throughout Oceania.
Today, Pacific communities are still reeling from the impacts of nuclear colonialism in the form of over 315 known nuclear and hydrogen bombs detonated by the US, UK and France throughout the 1940s-1990s. With the equivalent of approximately 7000 Hiroshima bombs in just the Marshall Islands alone, the aftermath spans deeper than cancers, displacement and widespread ecological contamination. Nuclear weapons have disrupted the Pacific way of life and relational security, denying Pacific peoples of their livelihoods, quality of life and connections to land, ancestors and culture.
While we address the strengthening of a nuclear free Pacific region, we must acknowledge the ways in which nuclear affected communities are seeking justice, reparations and self-determination in the face of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear tests.
In the Marshall Islands, 5 pillars of nuclear justice are listed under the national nuclear strategy. They are 1) compensation or the full payment of all past and future awards by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, 2) quality health care for all Marshallese, 3) reducing the risks of exposure to radiation and other toxins in the environment, 4) building national capacity to detect, monitor, understand and respond to radiation impacts and other toxic threats in the environment and 5) strong education and awareness on our nuclear legacy so that knowledge can be shared with and acted upon by future generations.
While attending the Pacific Conference of Churches 12th General Assembly last week in Kanaky, otherwise known as New Caledonia, I met with community leaders from the Marshall Islands who detailed the ongoing plight of families back home. Despite the high rates of cancer in the Marshall Islands, cancer treatment facilities are virtually non-existent on the island. Patients must travel overseas to either the US or Philippines to receive treatment, uprooting their lives and families. Mohana, a dear friend and cancer survivor from Ebeye, shared that while insurance is available, long wait times and limited coverage does not allow families to feel like they are getting the attention needed for their loved ones. In many cases, families will pay their own airfare to travel to the US to seek urgent care. When someone is diagnosed as terminally ill, they are deemed ineligible for transfer and are basically left to live out the rest of their lives in suffering – that is unless they can manage to afford their own way overseas to seek medical attention.
With stories like this in mind, we note that $2.3 billion in compensation was awarded to Marshallese people by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal for loss of land use, personal injury, hardship and suffering as well as for clean-up of contaminated lands; yet the U.S. has fallen incredibly short of its obligations. The Compact of Free Association enacted in 1986 deemed the $150 million dollars given by the US to Marshall Islands as “full and final settlement” of all legal claims, yet declassified documents of further information on the impacts of the tests revealed that even the $2.3 billion dollars would not cover all of the damages incurred by the Marshallese people. In September of 2000, Marshall Islands submitted to the US congress a changed circumstances petition requesting additional compensation in light of the new information. Today, the petition remains unaddressed and funding for the tribunal has dried out.
Concerns about compensation are echoed throughout the Pacific in Kiritimati (Kiribati), Maohi Nui otherwise known as French Polynesia, Fiji and other affected Pacific nations. Members of the general assembly from Maohi Nui reported that only a handful of families have received compensation for nuclear testing – 11 out of over 700 claimed Herehia from the Maohi Protestant Church. While the UK recognized British veterans of their nuclear tests in Kiritimati atoll in 2022, no such recognition was given to the people of Kiribati or even the Fijian servicemen who were also deployed to Kiritimati and suffered the impacts of radiation from those tests. Maohi Nui continues to petition for independence and self-determination at the United Nations as a way to strive for nuclear justice, and Kiribati as you all know heads the working group on victims assistance and environmental remediation under the TPNW.
With all of these efforts to pursue nuclear justice, we continue to witness nuclear colonialism take shape in many forms in our region – from the use of our oceans as highways for radioactive materials and nuclear powered submarines under the AUKUS pact, to the dumping of radioactive waste from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. These issues, coupled with geopolitics and climate change are a continuation of the paradigms which sparked nuclear testing in Oceania – regarding our islands and oceans as a frontier for colonization and militarism. In both cases of nuclear testing and radioactive waste dumping, developed countries have ignored the pleas of indigenous communities to safeguard their health and environment (see Resolution 1080 that the Marshallese people filed to the UN to stop the testing in their islands).
In solidarity, we find ourselves connected through our paths towards self-determination and decolonization – transforming our nuclear legacy into one of peace with justice and prosperity. If we continue to perpetuate the same attitudes from the age of nuclear tests, the costs of development to our small island nations through ongoing environmental pollution from fossil fuels, plastics, mining and more will continue.
Climate change compounds the struggle of nuclear affected communities in the Pacific, in some cases forcing them to relocate for a second time. As my dear sister and third-generation displaced Bikinian Rosenet Timius said, “My people once had to relocate for the good of mankind. Now, we have to relocate because of mankind.”
I would be remiss if I did not highlight the role of Pacific churches and faith-based organizations in the strengthening of a nuclear free Pacific region. Since the 1960s Pacific faith-based organizations have moved to ignite the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement. Today, this movement continues through the resolution of the PCC General Assembly, which took place last week and reads:
“As guardians of Pasifika, we call on the governments of Australia, China, France, India, Indonesia, the United Kingdom and the United States to free our region of nuclear proliferation, weapons of mass destruction and military bases.”
“We persist in our call for regional ratification of the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and a total commitment to the Rarotonga Treaty for a Nuclear Free Pacific. We challenge past and present colonial powers in the Pacific to sign the TPNW.”
These are a few ways in which Pacific Islanders are vying for justice and peace and prosperity in our region. I hope that we can ponder on the frameworks that have been looked at, and change the way that we think about the Pacific. Thank you so much.
Hawkins: Thank you APLN for this opportunity and fellow panellists for your expertise and all that you are sharing today.
I do not speak as a Pacific Islander myself, but I speak as someone who spent precious childhood years between Australia and Fiji, and some time in Aotearoa and Papua New Guinea, as well.
My Pacific upbringing really gifted me a love of culture, community, and a deep care for vanua, or country, including our waters, lands, air and all living things that reside in these places.
My Pacific upbringing also gifted me with a fierce anger at the way in which these places of my childhood were used by colonial forces as testing grounds for their weapons of mass destruction. Just in the years I lived in Fiji as a child, for example, saw over 60 nuclear weapons tests in neighbouring Ma’ohi Nui or French Polynesia. There was a prevalence of story around nuclear weapons testing; and it has been the motivation for my lifetime of activism in this work.
In our region, including in my home country, there has been over 315 nuclear weapons tests. These were conducted by colonial forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
Each of these nuclear armed states tested their largest thermonuclear weapons – atmospheric ones – in the Pacific.
All left behind legacies of waste and harm that we are still contending with today.
Throughout the Pacific, waste from these tests has been revealed to be disposed of badly; some simply dumped in our oceans, much buried in inadequate facilities, or in insecure lands subject to climate threats. The Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands is an example – originally poorly constructed and now under threat from rising seas. In my own country, waste from the weapons tests remains scattered across desert sands. The contamination on some Monte Bello islands means that visits are still limited to less than an hour because of radiation concerns.
In a new paper soon to be released through APLN, Dr Jim Green and I write about the many adverse impacts from weapons testing and other nuclear harms across Australia, and the waste that has been left behind. The paper suggests that the most striking feature of Australia’s efforts to manage nuclear weapons wastes and radiological wastes is the persistent, systemic racism adversely impacting First Nations peoples. The damage was radiological, psychological, environmental, and cultural. And yet, the resistance from First Nations Peoples that has seen significant campaign successes, particularly around halting planned nuclear waste dumps.
Everywhere, across the world, the lasting harms from nuclear testing and waste has created not just an intergenerational burden of displacement, environmental, health, and psychological impacts, but it also has deep political ramifications.
Across the Pacific, nuclear armed states were testing these weapons on occupied and colonised lands – places misconceived by foreign forces as “remote”, “far away” or “empty”.
None of these things were true for those who live there.
At the first Nuclear Free Pacific conference that birthed the NFIP movement, Papua New Guinean leader Albert Maori Kiki shared these words,
…We, the peoples of the Pacific, have not asked for nuclear devices. They
have been placed here and experimented with after our peoples have
been subjugated to direct or indirect rule. Make no mistake about it, these
weapons and devices are here against our will…
The colonial imagination that historically misconceived our region as ‘empty’ also long obscured proper recognition of harm to people and the environment. Much of the contamination, health and environmental impacts of nuclear activities has been poorly, or not at all, measured or remediated. Denial of true impacts hinders adequate monitoring or remediation of those harm. This must change.
We are working to change this through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, around shifting norms and expectations.
Civil society groups are central in creating norms for nuclear non-proliferation, restraint, and exits. As the world moves towards the positive obligations of “victim” assistance and environmental remediation in the TPNW, we expect to see new commitments to openness and transparency.
Essential to this is the centring of the lived experience of survivors and affected communities.
Because the harms caused by these weapons are not just historic – they are on-going, intergenerational, and unless dealt with, will be revisited upon us.
So what can we do?
I have been reflecting on the importance of listening and observing.
At important conferences such as this we need to ask ourselves – who is not in the room? The immense privilege of being here on this podium and in this good company is not lost on me. But we must always be looking to see who does not get a seat at the table, who is left outside of the room. How do we as civil society and governments working collaboratively towards nuclear abolition ensure we are hearing from the people most directly impacted by nuclear policies and harms? And how do we continue to engage with those who refuse to even step into the room?
The expertise that lived experience brings has a persuasive authority. We must continue to seek out, listen to and uplift lived experience from frontline affected community members. We must work to understand the complexity of the concept of “victim,” the scope of the term “affected community,” and also to understand the true reach that nuclear harms have caused – beyond simple lines on maps or incomplete data sets.
We must also seek to recognise the strength of collaboration.
Civil society and governments working together is how we have this Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It has been the call of so many in civil society, particularly those from affected states.
With connections to broader international organisations, many civil society groups work to bring Pacific perspectives to a global community and I pay my respects to all of them, and many of them are in the room with us today, so thank you all. We see so many Pasifika family in this meeting, and we are all richer for the stories, the strength and the energy they bring to this vital issue.
In this time where we are balanced between the hope that the TPNW offers and the despair of deteriorating disarmament norms and increasing nuclear threats and risks, it serves us to remember the power of civil society, and the strength that we bring to the process of nuclear disarmament and abolition. To recognise the importance of collaboration with willing governments.
The importance of civil society organisations in systemic change across transnational interests is well established. The work of civil society groups to engage, examine, and educate on issues of global concern is evident at this conference. Civil society builds political will and generates dialogue.
Before our governments come together, civil society comes together; we are collaborating, planning, finding common ground, seeking solutions, testing ideas. Working across states and nations, across generations, across languages, and cultures.
The relationship between civil society and governments depends on trust, cooperation, reciprocity and a level of mutual respect. Particularly now in a time of intense geopolitical stressors, this is something to truly work towards.
So we continue to build dialogue with fierce hope and intent:
The Pacific understands the importance of collaborative communications, talanoa, and what used to be called the Pacific Way – where no one is left behind, where dialogue is long, and consensus is the aim. Solidarity between Peoples and across the beautiful oceans and lands is key.
Any external power’s interests that threaten detrimental impacts on the Pacific will always meet with resistance.
Koro: I also just want to add my thanks to the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for organising this forum, and also to my fellow panelists.
I guess I will start with a question: What will it take to achieve a completely nuclear free Blue Pacific?
Malo ni, Talofa lava & Pacific greetings.
The main point I would like to emphasise for this rare opportunity to be here is that positive action towards the total abolition of nuclear weapons requires a change in mindset. For this shift to occur, I ask a simple question: whose interests are served by the continued projection of ‘fear’ that necessitates the creation of an environment to produce such weapons of mass destruction?
As mentioned, I come from Tokelau and Samoa. Tokelau is an administered state of New Zealand, and together with Samoa, have been actively championing the total abolition of nuclear weapons from the
Pacific and were also founding members of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, also known as the Rarotonga Treaty.
As mentioned, we do know that over 300 nuclear tests were conducted in our region. The lived experience and the intergenerational impact of nuclear testing, as shared by one of our panel members, and also others during this week, led to opposition to nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
So grave was the concern and so real the fear, that nuclear issue was one of the founding principles in the creation of what is now known as the Pacific Islands Forum in 1971, that is our premier political forum of the Pacific.
According to Samoan senior diplomat Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, “without the open and enabling environment that the Pacific Islands Forum offered, I doubt if the Rarotonga Treaty would ever become a reality, let alone discussed and considered.”
The Pacific Islands Forum was the critical platform that enabled the achievement of the nuclear-free Blue Pacific in 1985; a process of ten years that now contributes to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament by preventing the use, testing, and possession of nuclear weapons by member states, as well as nuclear waste disposal not allowed in our region.
The Rarotonga Treaty came into force in record time, a year after signature. This demonstrates how crucial nuclear issues are to Pacific states, and Pacific regionalism as a whole—anti-nuclear policies are intrinsically tied to decolonization and the move for independence.
Summed up by Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, “our region has been the site of nuclear testing, and the scars of fear and mistrust as a consequence of this experience including our vulnerability gave our region a shared point of reference that shaped our perspective of nuclear disarmament.”
The Pacific Islands Forum indeed emphasise that it is a nuclear-free zone, not just a nuclear weapon-free zone.
The anti-nuclear legacy is also a shared responsibility for Pacific Island states, one that calls on them to stand up for their fellow
members who face nuclear legacy injustices, or imminent nuclear threats. As such, eleven Pacific countries have ratified the Treaty that we gather here today to progress.
Political commitment to keeping the region a nuclear-free zone is supported by a number of Conventions and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat serves as the Depositary. I will just mention a few of these conventions. It is important to bear in mind that we do not see nuclear weapons as a separate issue of all other issues of nuclear.
The Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment (SPRP/Noumea Convention) in 1986. Entered into force in 1990, the Convention is a comprehensive umbrella agreement for the protection, management and development of the marine and coastal environment of the Pacific region.
We also have the Convention to Ban the Importation into Forum Island Countries of Hazardous and Radioactive Wastes and to Control the Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within the region (Waigani Convention) in 1995, and came into force in 2001.
As well as legally binding regional instruments, Pacific leaders also mandated the will of Pacific people to lead free, healthy and productive lives through various strategies. We had the Pacific Plan, which then morphed into the Framework for Pacific Regionalism, and it’s now reinforced in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific. In 2018, our leaders mandated the Boe Declaration on Regional Security, and it recognises the vulnerabilities of the Pacific and endorsed an expanded concept of security to include human security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific.
So yesterday, we heard one of the researchers talk about knowledge and power. These are important concepts that need to be unpacked in understanding the question I posed earlier, who are really benefitting from not advancing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
Power is about control and the heightened perceptions of ‘fear’ by some countries is a form of control. It is well acknowledged that the recent focus on nuclear weapons, the narrative of deterrent or forward projections are linked to perceptions of a changing world order.
The former Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum secretariat, Henry Puna in 2021 stated that (and I quote) “the nuclear threat is mutating and is now more complex than ever.” There are issues of radioactive waste, nuclear energy, nuclear-powered submarines, and even the militarisation of space to consider.
So in the multiplexity of the interconnectedness of the changing world order, how realistic is it to hope for the achievement of the objectives of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
Again, I ask, whose interests are being protected and advanced, at our cost? It is our cost, as our co-panelists mentioned, that has been the legacy, that we have always been sacrificed “for the common good.” We again see this being sacrificed in being asked to support AUKUS. A forward projection security pact signed by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the name, for the good, of the Indo Pacific region.
Yesterday, Nagasaki survivor Mr Kido asked why his government is not supporting this Treaty, given their nuclear experience. We ask the same question, specifically because of the Japanese government’s 30-year plan that commenced in August this year with the release of the first wave of the Fukushima waste in the Pacific.
Within these UN walls that we are in, we heard people speak their truth about the hopes they have in being part of the
international community, hopes for justice, hopes for respect, and hopes for peace. We add to those aspirations.
Pacific leaders lean on science to guide decisions and it is interesting that two opinions presented to the Forum this year had expressed different opinions in terms of the Fukushima waste. Already we are seeing a contest of the science, just as we saw the contest of the climate change, of opinions.
So I will end with some foresights. Our leaders’ foresight in establishing the Pacific Islands nuclear-free zone was based on our own science – the lived experience of our people. Our respect and relationship with the environment, and our responsibilities to ourselves, to others, and the environment.
Yesterday, we heard from a research panel of their valuable and crucial contribution to the nuclear prohibition discourse.
Personally, it would be good to have some Pacific scholarship included in the research space, to inject Pacific knowledge in informing policy directions at this important level, because we know we have new research and knowledge to offer.
We also heard from the panel of expert researchers yesterday that academia in this space has been dominated by European researchers. This view resonates with those who have long argued that the “theory of security in world politics has long been imprisoned by conservative thinking.” In the context of geopolitics, “European powers continued in what had become a long tradition of building and projecting military force to compete over access to and control of territory…” We need to revisit these perspectives. Because we are seeing also the continued wave of colonialism.
We need a change of mindset to give meaning to the Treaties and Conventions we make for the freedom and safety of all people. As the honourable survivor Mr Kido said yesterday, “it is simply impossible to resolve social issues with military power, but with dialogue”. Thank you for your time.
Kabutaulaka: Pacific greetings to all of you. Now first let me take the opportunity to thank the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for the opportunity, for making it possible for me to be here. Thank you, thank you very much. And second, thank you to my fellow panelists for the wonderful presentation. I have never been to a gathering like this, so this is scary. I don’t have a prepared presentation, but I will rattle on for ten minutes and see where we go.
What I’m going to do is provide some very broad points that will hopefully emphasize what my fellow panelists have talked about, and also at the same time, provide a broad frame for us understanding the Pacific more broadly, but secondly, understanding nuclear issues.
My first point is that the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Islands have long been a site for geopolitical competition, and Pacific Islanders are familiar with geopolitical competition, as well as being affected by geopolitical competition. We saw that in the 1800, which led to the establishment of colonial territories, many of which have subsequently become nation-states that we know today. They are products of colonialism, mostly. The creation of arbitrary boundaries around the Pacific are, in fact, colonial creations. But they have become important to us. They have become a point of identity – a place that we identify with. And because of that, geopolitical competition has also enabled others to use the Pacific Islands for their purposes, including the use of Pacific Island places for military purposes, including nuclear testing.
So there is a close intersection between colonialism and militarization in the Pacific. You cannot understand militarization and you cannot understand the use of Pacific islands for militarization without understanding colonialism.
The U.S., France and Great Britain used their colonies in Oceania for nuclear weapons testing. Between 1946 and 1958 the U.S. used Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands to test 67 nuclear bombs. The largest, dubbed Castle Bravo, was detonated on March 1, 1954. It was about 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
Pacific Islanders were not passive victims. They actively protested. As soon as it started in 1946, Marshallese opposed the use of their islands for nuclear tests. In 1956, Western Samoa – then a trust territory of New Zealand – petitioned the United Nations Trusteeship Council to halt the UK’s proposed tests on Kiritimati and Malden islands. Similarly, in a report to the Cook Islands Legislative Council, the Rarotonga Island Council expressed concerns about use of those islands for tests.
Non-government organizations (NGOs), Churches and other faith-based organizations, women’s groups and indigenous peoples movement had long rallied against nuclear testing. In 1970 activists formed a movement called ATOM (Against French Testing in Moruroa). It subsequently evolved into the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement in 1975.
The anti-nuclear protests culminated in the signing of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty (the Rarotonga Treaty) in 1985 and its enforcement in 1986. It prohibits the manufacture, acquisition, testing and stationing of nuclear explosive devices and the dumping of radioactive wastes in the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone.
However, the Treaty has weaknesses. For example, it does not prohibit countries from transporting nuclear devices through the zone, nor does it prohibit nuclear-powered or equipped ships from calling in ports within the area.
There are loopholes that nuclear weapon states have exploited, and are likely to take advantage of in the face of current geopolitical competitions. For example, although the U.S. signed the Treaty, it did not ratify the protocols.
The three protocols to the Rarotonga Treaty are:
- Nuclear weapons states with territories in the zone (France, United Kingdom, and United States) agree to apply the treaty to their territories.
- Parties undertake not to use or threaten to use any nuclear explosive device against parties to the treaty or territories in the zone of parties to Protocol 1.
- Parties undertake not to test nuclear explosive devices in the zone.
These are fundamental protocols for the treaty, which countries in the US have not ratified.
In the past decade-and-a-half the Pacific Ocean has once again become a site for geopolitical competition. Now, its between the U.S. and China and their respective allies. These geopolitical tensions have led to a renewed militarization of the region, and potentially pose issues of the presence of nuclear weapons in the Pacific.
The U.S. and UK have partnered with Australia through AUKUS to deliver at least three Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines to Australia by 2030. The Australian government insists AUKUS is consistent with the Rarotonga Treaty. At the November 2023 Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese told Pacific Island leaders that “all of the arrangements that we’ve put in place have been consistent with . . .” the Rarotonga Treaty, and Australia will not acquire nuclear weapons. Despite this, Pacific Island leaders have expressed concern that AUKUS could undermine the treaty.
Furthermore, the Australia-United States Enhanced Air Cooperation agreement provides for the stationing of up to six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers at the Tindal Base in Australia’s Northern Territory. The U.S. will not confirm or deny whether these aircrafts will carry nuclear weapons. If they do, then it will contravene the Rarotonga Treaty’s prohibition on the “stationing of nuclear explosive devices”.
Apart from nuclear weapons, the U.S. reinforced its military bases in Guåhan/Guam and Hawaiʻi, and in 1944 established a base in Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, which amongst other uses, served as a ballistic missile defense test site. France strengthened its military presence in French Polynesia and New Caledonia.
Let me end by saying something really quite different from what I talked about earlier, and that’s the increasing normalization of nuclear weapons and power in a lot of our communities. In particular, the use of popular culture in normalization of nuclear weapons. I’m referring to how your kids often want to watch Spongebob Squarepants, in a place that’s called Bikini Bottom. In a lot of our societies, there’s an increasing normalization of nuclear issues to the extent that it erases the brutality of nuclear weapons, and even fashion swimsuits like bikinis that in many ways sexualizes this very brutal history that people forget is connected to nuclear weapons. That is a much bigger issue than the United Nations. That is a much bigger issue that our society needs to think about.