When the Greenpeace flag ship, Rainbow Warrior, was bombed in Auckland Harbour on July 10 1985, in act of terrorism by France against New Zealand, perceptions of our cosy political isolation in the Pacific changed.
The incident had a further profound impact on me as a teenager in relation to my security in the Pacific and the world.
Before the Rainbow Warrior bombing incident which killed a Portugese Dutch photo-journalist, I did not know that Pacific island atolls were being used as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. A youth at the time, I was angry, enraged, afraid and most of all I felt powerless.
I can imagine many youths today must feel the same way about the impacts of climate change.
There are two existential threats that impact our future lives particularly so for Pacific island communities, the environment and our new generation of leaders. They are climate change and the nuclear testing legacy.
These are not siloed issues but in fact are two heads of the same beast and should be approached together in policy solutions as well as activism.
I grew up around political activists, church leaders, women of prayer and great faith, who advocated for change and agency for the Pacific people. If it were not for these people and their commitment to a nuclear free Pacific and Pacific regional agency, there is nothing to say that nuclear testing would not have stopped.
On the 6th of August 1945, USA detonated a nuclear bomb called ‘Little Boy’ over Hiroshima and on the 9th of August, ‘Fat Man’ fell over Nagasaki. After the so called “success” of these bombs over Japan, the USA did its first fusion device testing called Test Mike in Eniwetok, Marshall Islands, on October 31st, 1952. Following this, France conducted 193 nuclear atmospheric and underground nuclear tests in French Polynesia from 1966 to 1996. The United Kingdom conducted 12 atmospheric tests in the Pacific from 1952 to 1957.
Nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific has thankfully stopped due to activism, protests and the political leaders from newly formed sovereign island states and outrage over the Rainbow Warrior bombing by France.
The South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone governed by the Treaty of Rarotonga came into force in 1986. This treaty that was fought and negotiated for all of us and our environment in the Pacific region, prohibits nuclear devices in the Pacific and bans all testing and use of nuclear explosives in our region.
However, fallout from nuclear testing from radiation, plutonium leaks, displaced communities, and the irreversible side effects on health and mortality are still ongoing 75 years later. The French government continue to deny liability from its nuclear weapons testing programmes, maintaining that their testing was ‘clean.’
The nuclear testing legacy and its consequences on the environment is very much part of our climate change discourse.
A similar argument for ‘clean coal’ was created by fossil fuels companies and some policy makers. Clean coal is a concept based on developing carbon capture technology that would allow coal plants to bury the carbon dioxide emissions into the ground. The fact remains that this type of technology is a long way from operational and expensive to develop. While we are discussing it, we are wasting precious time as countries such as USA and Russia continue to support fossil fuels as the energy of choice in the Covid-19 era.
The Pacific region and her people will continue to be on the frontlines of climate disruption based on policy actions based on short term thinking supporting fossil driven energy.
Fiji born, Vanessa Griffen a founding member of the Nuclear Free Independent Pacific Movement (NFIP) whose nuclear activism began in Fiji in the 70’s, feels hope today as we reflect back to the nuclear bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago. There are more and more countries and political leaders all over the world advocating for nuclear disarmament. UN member states voted to adopt the UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons in 2017, (TPNW). Five Pacific island states have ratified the TPNW (Samoa, Fiji, Kiribati, Cook Islands, Niue). As it stands today, we are 6 countries shy of the 50 ratifications needed to bring the TPNW into force as a norm of international law.
The threat of nuclear weapons used either by accident, miscommunication, intentionally by states or that they end up in the wrong hands such as non-state actors, cannot be overstated as a real and possible risk.
Nuclear weapons as a weapon of choice against military adversaries and military objectives is considered incompatible to the four principles of distinction, proportionality, military necessity and unnecessary suffering under the laws of war.
Gaps exist in the timing and international law process which may allow a window for certain states to use the doctrine of deterrence via nuclear armament as the last resort instead of seeking peace through diplomacy and cooperation.
In the USA, there is speculation if President Trump will renew the START Treaty due to expire in 2021. The treaty is the only agreement under international law that governs and limits USA and Russia’s proliferation of nuclear weapons and warheads.
The humanitarian suffering from the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago is proof of the inhumane and uncivilized horror inflicted upon life. As it was also for the communities and the environment during the nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
The younger generation have the calling and burden of not only fighting institutions of power and patriarchy for climate justice and better robust international law to protect environment and communities, but also to continue the fight for reparations and justice from the legacy of nuclear testing and to ensure that the Pacific is never again used for testing nuclear weapons.
Grace Maharaj was born in Fiji and grew up in New Zealand and is a resident of Sweden. She has worked with asylum and migration for the social services department under the municipality of Stockholm. She is currently studying Climate Change Leadership, Peace and Conflict Studies at the Uppsala University, Sweden.
The Pacific Outlook series is an initiative of the Pacific Hub.