Nnuclear weapons will soon become illegal. More than 75 years since their destruction first occurred in the world, the global community has banded together to enforce a ban through Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Late Saturday night in New York, the 50th nation – the central American state in Honduras – ratified the treaty.
It will become international law in 90 days.
For many in the Pacific region, this is an important and long-awaited achievement. During the second half of the 20th century, 315 nuclear weapons tests were carried out by the so-called “friendly” or invading armies Marshall Island, Kiribati, Australia and Maohi Nui (French Polynesia).
The United States, Britain and France used large parts of their colonies to test their nuclear weapons, not just leave dangerous physical inheritance but psychological and political wounds too.
The survivors of this test and their descendants continued to speak up against these weapons. They vocal opponents and educators, reluctant but intense knowledge holders of the nuclear reality in our region.
In establishing the nuclear ban treaty, the voices of Pacific survivors stand out alongside the voices from Hibakusha survivor from Japan.
The Pacific islands were early adopters of the agreement. Fiji, Kiribati, Palau, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, New Zealand and Nauru have signed and ratified. Niue and Cook Islands have agreed.
Australia is particularly absent, reflecting the vested interests of its alliance partner, the United States, and a false reliance on outdated and vague doctrine of extended nuclear deterrence.
And the treaty was put into law despite opposition from the five original nuclear powers, the US, Russia, China, Britain and France. The Trump administration has written to treaty signatories saying the agreement was a “strategic mistake” and urging them to cancel their ratification.
In contrast, for many Pacific nations, the experience of living over 50 years of nuclear testing still drives their current stand.
On that day Fiji ratifying the agreement this year, the state high commissioner for the United Nations, Dr Satyendra Prasad, said:
Pacific Islanders are constantly exposed to nuclear radiation. Nuclear explosions, we know very well, they don’t observe national borders, they don’t respect the visa regime, nor do they waste time-respecting nuclear – it lasts for generations.
For many survivors, the intergenerational impact of testing remains critical to justice.
Aunt Sue Coleman-Haseldine, a Kokatha-Mula woman from South Australia, was a child when she experienced the nuclear impact of a British nuclear test in the 1950s.
He stated in a speech at a UN conference in 2014: “We want nuclear weapons to be permanently banned and uranium that could leave him on the ground. If you love your own children and care for the world’s children, you will find the courage to stand up and say ‘enough’. “
The unresolved injustices in the region prompted many to support the new agreement, which prohibits the use, threat of use and testing of nuclear weapons.
Among the goals, there are those which are termed “positive obligations”. This includes assistance to victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, as well as environmental restoration for affected areas – a marked shift to include humanitarian law along with more traditional nuclear disarmament laws.
The agreement calls for “age and gender sensitive assistance… including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support”. But most importantly, it does not cancel the responsibility of those who use nuclear weapons.
A former Marshall Islands foreign minister, the late Tony de Brum, spoke frequently about the long-term impact of US nuclear testing on his people. He often remembers his childhood experiences about exams.
Every time one of those things explodes, it’s another trauma – I’d challenge anyone to undergo 12 years of testing at Marshalls, which doesn’t go away with a permanent scar somewhere on your system. It is a sign of that period.
The legacy of environmental, human and cultural damage is exacerbated by tremendous grief and frustration over unclear record-keeping and deliberate excuses on behalf of the state responsible for the testing.
Revealing historical truth will be the key to nuclear justice for many people across the Pacific.
Calling for the opening of the nuclear testing record held by the US, de Brum said: “You cannot continue to withhold the necessary information we need to make decisions on matters that are fair and appropriate to our people.”
We need a new commitment to transparency and accountability from all countries involved in historic nuclear tests. After generations of nuclear experiments, the impact of these weapons tests and the resulting nuclear waste across land and oceans remains to be studied across the Pacific.
The abolition of historical silence is necessary for such a study to even begin.
This new treaty enters international law with many promises for nuclear justice.
It’s past time.
Dimity Hawkins AM is a PhD candidate at Swinburne University researching nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. He is a co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
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