In Japan, they’re called hibakusha – the survivors of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later. Seventy-five years on, the survivors remember those days, and call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Yasujiro Tanaka was just 3.4 kilometres from the blast, as the United States dropped an atomic weapon on Nagasaki on 9 August.
“I was three years old at the time of the bombing,” he said. “I don’t remember much, but I do recall that my surroundings turned blindingly white, like a million camera flashes going off at once. Then, pitch darkness. I was buried alive under the house, I’ve been told.”
No one truly knows how many people died in these nuclear attacks. Estimates range from 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, in the initial attack and subsequent weeks. Other hibakusha lived on for decades, stricken by cancer, leukemia and other diseases caused by exposure to ionising radiation.
Across the Pacific, there are also nuclear survivors, who witnessed more than 310 nuclear tests in Australia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia. On the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their story too is part of nuclear history.
From the very beginning, the Pacific islands were central to the nuclear era. Two US aircraft carried the bombs to Japan from Tinian Island in the Marianas Islands: Enola Gay (which transported the atomic weapon codenamed ‘Little Boy’ to Hiroshima) and Bockscar (which dropped ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki).
After the attack on Japan and the death of tens of thousands of civilians, the United States, Britain and France developed their Cold War nuclear arsenals by testing nuclear weapons in Oceania. Nuclear survivors can roll off a long list of Pacific test sites: Bikini, Enewetak, Monte Bello, Emu Field, Maralinga, Malden Island, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Johnston (Kalama) Atoll, Moruroa Atoll, Fangataufa atoll.
From 1946 until 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. There were another 24 tests in the British Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony in 1962 (today, part of Kiribati), as well as nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere on rockets launched from Johnston Atoll. The largest US atmospheric nuclear test was conducted on Bikini Atoll on 1 March 1954. Codenamed “Bravo”, the test had an explosive yield of 15 megatons, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT explosive.
After the Bravo test, Lemeyo Abon was one of the children relocated from Rongelap, one of the northern RMI atolls contaminated by fallout from the Bravo test. This evacuation began a decades-long odyssey that has left many people still living in exile. After returning to live on the contaminated atoll for 30 years, she was again evacuated to Mejatto Island in 1985 aboard the Rainbow Warrior, just before it was attacked and sunk in Auckland Harbour by French intelligence agents (this year is the 35th anniversary of the French terrorist attack on the Greenpeace vessel, which killed photographer Fernando Pereira).
Abon later moved to the Marshall Islands capital Majuro, still far away from her home island, where she told me: “We are still living in this place in exile from our homeland, like a coconut floating in the sea. The United States has to live up to their responsibility and make sure our children and grandchildren will be cared for.”
Sadly, Lemeyo Abon died in exile in 2018, without returning to her home island.
For the Marshallese, the aftermath of the 1954 Bravo test led to tragic consequences. The US military and medical staff from Brookhaven National Laboratory, led by Dr. Robert Conard, saw an opportunity to research the effects of radiation on people living on contaminated land. Under Project 4.1, medical studies were undertaken on at least 539 men, women, and children – often without informed consent – including experimental surgery and injections of chromium-51, radioactive iodine, iron, zinc, and carbon-14.
Over time, Marshall Islanders began to question the way that the medical studies were being conducted. In 1975, Rongelap islander Nelson Anjain wrote a moving letter to Dr. Robert Conard: “I realise now that your entire career is based on our illness. We are far more valuable to you, than you are to us. You have never really cared about us as people – only as a group of guinea pigs for your government’s bomb research effort. For me and the people of Rongelap, it is life which matters most. For you, it is facts and figures. There is no question about your technical competence, but we often wonder about your humanity. We don’t need you and your technical machinery. We want our life and our health. We want to be free.”
People working or living at the nuclear test sites faced the hazard that radioactive isotopes might be inhaled or ingested, potentially causing cancers and other illnesses. But islanders were rarely informed of the hazards of accumulated nuclear particles in the food chain, increasing the danger for those reluctant to give up their traditional diet of fish, coconut and breadfruit.
One example comes from the British hydrogen bomb testing program on Christmas (Kiritimati) Island. During Operation Grapple, the United Kingdom conducted nine atmospheric nuclear tests on Kiritimati and Malden Island in 1957-58.
Tekoti Rotan was one of more than 270 Fijians who witnessed these tests. Rotan was born in Banaba, the location of a major mining operation that eventually consumed two thirds of the island’s land. During the Second World War, the Banabans were removed to Kosrae by the Japanese military. After the war, Britain refused to send the Banabans back to their phosphate-rich home, and many were sent to Rabi in Fiji.
In 1957, as a member of the Fiji Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve, Tekoti Rotan was deployed to Kiritimati Island, as part of the UK naval task force for Operation Grapple. In an interview, he said that safety regulations limiting consumption of fish had little meaning for Fijians and Gilbertese living on Kiritimati during the nuclear testing program: “The only warning we had before the test, was they warned the people: ‘After the test, don’t eat any fish!’ But you know, I’m from Kiribati. I love raw fish and this is the only dangerous thing after the test. They said: ‘Don’t!’ but I ignored them. I went to the Kiribati people and said: ‘Hey, raw fish, we’re not supposed to eat the raw fish!’ But they said ‘Oh, we’ve been eating it and nothing’s happened.’ That was the biggest mistake for them.”
As France conducted 193 nuclear tests in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996, Maohi workers were often given the difficult, dirty and dangerous tasks.
Tanemaruata Michel Arakino was born on Reao, an island not far from Moruroa Atoll, site of 178 French nuclear tests (a further 15 nuclear tests were held at nearby Fangataufa Atoll). For 17 years, Arakino worked with the French military research unit responsible for collecting biological samples at the nuclear test sites, to determine the amount and spread of radioactive particles.
Working as a scuba diver, he also dove into the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll to collect samples of water, seaweed, and sediments, just hours after underground nuclear tests had been conducted in shafts drilled deep into the atoll.
Years later, Arakino told of the ways he may have been exposed to hazardous levels of ionising radiation: “In my job, I was regularly in the so-called ‘hot spots’ together samples from the ground and the sea for biological testing on Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls and across all of Polynesia, as well as for the testing of foods coming from outside the country. I was in charge of a garden with contaminated earth that we brought in from Fangataufa itself. The Biological Testing Service wanted to know what happens to vegetables grown in contaminated soil. It is likely that while working in this garden and while diving to gather plankton above ground zero, I swallowed or breathed in radioactive particles. In no case did my senior officers inform me of the risks I might incur.”
In French Polynesia today, the lagoon at Moruroa Atoll remains contaminated by plutonium and other long-lasting radioactive isotopes. As they dismantled the CEP nuclear test site after the end of testing in 1996, the French military dumped more than 2600 tonnes of nuclear-contaminated material into the waters off Moruroa (2580 tonnes at a site codenamed “Oscar” and a further 76 tonnes at site “Novembre”). The basalt base of the atoll is fractured by dozens of underground nuclear tests, creating fissures that may allow the leaching of radioactivity into the marine environment.
In the Marshall Islands, Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll hosts a massive concrete dome which covers tons and tons of nuclear-contaminated waste. The radioactive legacy of US nuclear tests on Enewetak was buried under concrete in the mid-1970s, in a giant crater created by a nuclear blast. Today, however, the dome is cracking, leaching contaminants into the ocean environment.
In her 2018 poem ‘Anointed’, Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner mourns the damage to Runit: “You were a whole island once. Who remembers you beyond your death? Who would have us forget that you were once green globes of fruit, pandanus roots and whispers of canoes? Who knows the stories of the life you led before?”
In recent years, Pacific island citizens have played a crucial role in the development of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The treaty was adopted in 2017 at the United Nations over the objections of nuclear-armed and allied states. It proposes a global ban on nuclear weapons, framed in terms of humanitarianism, human rights and environmentalism. The TPNW also placed obligations on states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediate contaminated environments.
Japanese hibakusha Setsuko Thurlow gave the Nobel lecture in 2017, as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was presented the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to create the TPNW.
"We were not content to be victims”, Setsuko said. “We refused to wait for an immediate fiery end or the slow poisoning of our world. We refused to sit idly in terror as the so-called great powers took us past nuclear dusk and brought us recklessly close to nuclear midnight. We rose up. We shared our stories of survival. We said: humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist."
On 7 July this year, the third anniversary of the treaty adoption, Fiji became the 39th country to formally lodge its ratification documents with the United Nations. Ambassador Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said: “We hope today we are giving further momentum to efforts to get the necessary 50 member states that are needed for the TPNW to come into force…The human suffering across the Pacific from decades of exposure to nuclear weapons testing remains one of the most painful legacies of our colonial past. Pacific Islanders have for generations suffered from health consequences that arise from the destruction and contamination of their ecosystems; and from the forced relocation from their ancestral lands to make way for nuclear testing”.
Fiji joins other Pacific states that have already signed and ratified the TPNW, including New Zealand, Vanuatu, Samoa, Palau, Kiribati, and Cook Islands. In contrast, the Morrison government in Australia is opposed to the TPNW, maintaining its support for the US alliance and extended nuclear deterrence.
75 years on from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pacific Conference of Churches has joined religious leaders from across Australia, writing to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call on the Australian government to act.
“Nuclear arms control agreements are expiring, languishing or collapsing”, they write. “We are heartened by the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Negotiated by a majority of nations, the new treaty champions collective security beyond nuclear weapons…Australia claims to support nuclear disarmament yet, to our deep disappointment, our nation remains outside the TPNW. As people of faith across Australia, we join together in one voice to urge the Australian Government to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”
This article draws on “Grappling with the Bomb”, a history of nuclear testing and Pacific nuclear survivors by Islands Business correspondent Nic Maclellan.
The day began with a video, showing a disparate collection of arresting images – the drowned Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira, camera in hand and a huge smile on his face.
Mugshots of two captured French DGSE secret agents – a fake honeymooning pair jailed for manslaughter, but later spirited off to Hao atoll and freedom.
Sun-drenched tropical beaches and a ship with a gaping hull, sinking into the frigid Auckland Harbour on a winter’s night.
Newspaper headlines expressing disbelief that something like this could happen in peaceful New Zealand.
It is fitting that the discussion began with such an array of images. The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior on 10 July 1985 is one episode in a large and complex geopolitical environmental story – a story that isn’t over yet.
Suing French government
Organised by H-France, the panel featured figured such as Oscar Temaru, five times president of French Polynesia who is in the process of suing the French government, and Dr David Robie, a New Zealand journalist who was on board the Rainbow Warrior on its final 11 week Pacific voyage to the Marshall Islands and then to New Zealand.
Other speakers were Ena Manuireva, an Auckland University of Technology academic and PhD candidate who is from Mangareva, one of the French Polynesian islands most affected by the French nuclear tests where the Rainbow Warrior intended to protest before its sinking; Stephanie Mills, a former Greenpeace Pacific nuclear test ban campaigner and NZ board chair; and Rebecca Priestley, a history associate professor from Victoria University in Wellington who has specialised in New Zealand’s relationship to nuclear issues.
The webinar was moderated by Dr Roxanne Panchasi, an associate history professor from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, who specialises in French studies.
The event was preceded by a mihi in Te Reo Māori by Dr Hirini Kaa of the University of Auckland, and a karakia in Tahitian by Ena Manuireva.
In keeping with the discussion’s examination of the effects of colonialism, moderator Dr Panchasi acknowledged the colonised nature of British Columbia, where she was speaking from.
“I am a settler and an uninvited guest on this territory,” she said.
The relevance of the Rainbow Warrior and its connected issues to the current age was a common touchstone among the speakers. Although the sinking of the ship occurred 35 years ago, it still represents issues that have significant impacts on the peoples and nations of the Pacific.
Not least of these are the effects of nuclear testing in French Polynesia.
Nuclear health troubles
Oscar Temaru spoke on how French testing of atomic weapons in his country doesn’t feel so long ago.
“That was 35 years ago?” he said, speaking from his office in Faa’a. “Time flies!”
France conducted 193 tests in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996, resulting in the contamination of the food and water sources of many people across the islands. Birth defects were common and families were forced to move islands in the hope of providing a healthier future for their children.
To this day, rates of thyroid cancer are disproportionately high, and the disfiguring scars of thyroid removal surgery can be seen on many women.
“I bury people nearly every day, dying from different types of cancer,” Temaru said. “I just wonder sometimes what sin we did to the French.”
Temaru said that nuclear issues and those of French Polynesian sovereignty are interlinked. “The two issues are tied – nuclear testing and our freedom.”
In 2018, he took the French government to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, seeking justice for “all the people who died from the consequences of nuclear colonialism”.
Since then, he has been embroiled in a number of legal troubles leveled at him by the French government, such as a six-month suspended jail sentence and a US$50,000 fine for alleged corruption.
Last month, he embarked on a two-week hunger strike after a French prosecutor ordered the seizure of US$108,000 from him.
Despite these difficulties, Temaru remained upbeat about the future during the webinar. “We need the new generation to take up the flag and go forward,” he said. “Māohi lives matter!”
When the Rainbow Warrior, a 40m trawler owned by Greenpeace, was bombed by French DGSE agents in Auckland Harbour, causing the death of photographer Fernando Pereira, it had set its sights on French Polynesia.
The crew were planning to sail to Moruroa Atoll to protest continued tests.
“The campaign against nuclear testing was in Greenpeace’s DNA,” said former Greenpeace campaigner Stephanie Mills. At the time of the attack, Mills was a reporter for The New Zealand Herald.
But she stressed that the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior was not a discrete, encapsulated event. “People are still dying. They need assistance. There’s still a job to do.”
Birth defects, cancers
Auckland-based researcher Ena Manuireva was born on Mangareva, one of the islands most affected by French testing on Moruroa Atoll. He spoke about how his family was affected by the tests, with a sister born with birth defects and other relatives developing cancer. His mother saw the mushroom cloud from the first blast, in 1967.
“My mum was poisoned,” said Manuireva. “She had her lips bleeding from the fallout.”
Manuireva said that the story was not over for the people of Mangareva, and that they needed to be aware of the ongoing effects of the nuclear blasts.
“People are still dying,” he said. “You see a lot of babies in the cemetery. Mothers and grandmothers feel the effects of chemo and having to take their pills.”
Manuireva said that the people of his island were unwilling to recognise the effects of the tests.
“They feel like they were duped,” he said. Authorities on the island such as the Catholic Church and the French administration assured the locals that the tests would be clean and that there was nothing to worry about, and Manuireva believes that the shame of believing the lies dissuades Mangarevans from talking about these issues.
“We need to make them aware of what’s happened because it’s their history.”
New Zealand journalist and academic Dr David Robie, a journalism professor and director of the Pacific Media Centre at AUT, said that media coverage of the attack in New Zealand often neglected to mention the broader issues at play, focusing instead on the espionage intrigue of the DGSE agents.
“I wanted to tell the story from a humanitarian view,” he told the panel.
Dr Robie was onboard the Rainbow Warrior for 11 weeks prior to the bombing, accompanying the crew as they helped residents of the US nuclear test-affected Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands find refuge on Mejato and travelling to New Zealand via Kiribati and Vanuatu.
Helping move the Rongelap refugees was “one of the most momentous and moving experiences I’ve had in my life as a journalist”, he said. He wrote about the experience in his environmental book Eyes of Fire, published in several countries.
Victoria University of Wellington history professor Dr Rebecca Priestley spoke of the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior as confirming New Zealand’s nuclear-free stance.
“The bombing was really the last straw,” she said. In 1984, the Lange-lead Labour government had won on a platform of establishing a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific.
After tensions with the United States for barring entry of potentially nuclear warships to New Zealand harbours, New Zealand was already in a tense position. The attack caused public outrage and people doubled down on the decision to back nuclear-free.
Priestley spoke about how New Zealand led the world by using an evidence-based decision making approach, and that 2020 and the world-changing crises of covid-19 may ask a similar commitment.
“It was a crazy time in New Zealand and the Pacific’s history,” she said, “and it’s a crazy time now.”
French testing on Moruroa Atoll ended in 1996. Stephanie Mills was at the island with Greenpeace during some of the last tests in 1995. She said that she felt no fear because she knew she had public support behind her, evidenced by a recent petition against the tests that had gathered five million signatures.
“We were tear gassed and boarded. A few of us were taken and disappeared for several days. I wasn’t afraid, because I knew about the five million signatures.”
The change to the regime of nuclear tests in the Pacific was a victory for the people of the region, and Mills said that Greenpeace did not claim credit.
“It was a million acts of courage – an example of change from the bottom up.” She said that remembering the Rainbow Warrior was not just about nuclear issues – “It’s about people having the agency to make change.”
However, new issues assail the Pacific as people living on low-lying islands are some of the first to be affected by the ever-increasing effects of global climate change. This, along with the fact that thousands of people in the Pacific are still affected by the effects of the fallout, means that the Rainbow Warrior remains an important symbol.
Independence a fundamental issue
“The fundamental issue is the self-determination of indigenous peoples across the Pacific,” said Dr Robie. The Rainbow Warrior and its Greenpeace crew, along with their solidarity with independence movements across the Pacific, are inextricable from the issue of indigenous sovereignty.
He invoked the memory of Vanuatu’s founding prime minister Father Walter Lini who said the Pacific could not be truly free until the Māohi people of Tahiti, Kanaks of New Caledonia and West Papuans were also free.
Dr Robie reported that he had noticed a “gap in history” in his students in a “living history” journalism project in 2015, wherein they were not aware of the geopolitical backdrop of the Rainbow Warrior attack. He and Manuireva expressed the desire that this retrospective is the beginning of a series to discuss and raise awareness of related Pacific issues.
While the webinar was concerned with how the event will be remembered into the future, there was also an air of memorial to it. Several of the speakers paid tribute to fallen figures connected to the Rainbow Warrior story.
Chief among these was Fernando Pereira, the sole casualty of the 1985 bombing. “I’d like to acknowledge Fernando Pereira,” said Mills. “He wasn’t just a crew member and photographer. He was a friend to many people.”
Steve Sawyer, the Greenpeace campaigner for the Rongelap mission, was also remembered. Sawyer died almost exactly a year ago, on July 31, 2019, of lung cancer.
Matthew Scott is a student journalist on the Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies programme at Auckland University of Technology. He also reports at Te Waha Nui.
This is part of a series of articles by the Pacific Media Centre as part of an environmental project funded by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) Asia-Pacific initiative. It originally appeared at PMC Online: https://pmc.aut.ac.nz/articles/french-nuclear-tests-i-bury-people-nearly-every-day-what-was-our-sin-5262
In French Polynesia, long-time independence leader Oscar Manutahi Temaru is again locked in battle with the French legal system. Last month, Temaru launched a two-week hunger strike, in protest over the seizure of his personal finances by French prosecutor Hervé Leroy.
For French authorities, the latest actions are part of a long-running case over the funding of the pro-independence radio station Radio Tefana by the municipality of Faa’a, where Temaru has been mayor for nearly 40 years. In contrast, Temaru sees the actions of French judicial authorities as political rather than legal – payback for his protests on decolonisation and nuclear testing that have embarrassed successive French leaders.
In October 2018, Temaru lodged a complaint before the International Criminal Court, accusing the French state of committing a crime against humanity, through France’s nuclear weapons testing program in the Pacific (between 1966 and 1996, France conducted 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls). At the time, Temaru said: “This case aims to hold all the living French presidents accountable for the nuclear tests against our country.”
Since then, he has faced a series of legal battles and accusations of corruption, that have tied up the veteran politician in legal red-tape.
Legal battles continue
In 2019, Temaru was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and was fined $US50,000 for exercising so-called undue influence. The court found that financial support from Faa’a town council to Radio Tefana benefitted the independence party Tavini Huiraatira no Te Ao Maohi, which Temaru has led since its founding.
Across the francophone Pacific, it’s common for local and territorial governments to fund independent community radio stations, to broaden public debate beyond the state-run French radio and TV stations. Both supporters and opponents of independence commonly provide grants to radio stations, such as Radio RRB and Radio Djiido in New Caledonia, or Radio Tefana and Radio Maohi in Tahiti. Temaru’s supporters note that the regulation of such funding is unevenly enforced, with differing penalties for breaches (French Polynesia’s current president Edouard Fritch received a much lighter penalty in 2016, when the municipality of Pirae was criticised for funding Radio Maohi).
Despite this, French prosecutor Herve Leroy re-opened Temaru’s case in September last year, asserting that he had misspent taxpayer funds, because the Faa’a municipal council had funded his defence during the 2019 court case over the community radio station.
Last month, Temaru was again called before the court, and on 4 June, prosecutor Leroy ordered the seizure of 11.5 million French Pacific Francs (US$108,000) from Temaru’s personal bank account. Leroy stated: “This step, known as ‘value confiscation’, has allowed us to seize the exact amount of public funds improperly charged to the budget of the municipality of Faa'a for legal fees and expenses in the case for which he was prosecuted and convicted at first instance.”
Launching a hunger strike on 8 June, Temaru argued that because the 2019 case was still on appeal, the prosecutor had violated the presumption of innocence. Seeking a judicial review of Leroy’s actions, Temaru stated: “He shows no respect. I’ve been Mayor of Faa’a for 37 years and I’m as white as snow…He only has one objective, and that’s to blacken the name of me and my family. The intention behind all this is to assassinate me politically. I would prefer that he just grabs a pistol and kills me, then we won’t have to talk about it anymore.”
Moetai Brotherson represents French Polynesia in the French National Assembly in Paris. A member of Tavini Huiraatira, Brotherson told Islands Business that the case was politically motivated.
“It’s the latest episode of a very sad witch hunt that has been undertaken by the French prosecutor here,” he said. “In the latest instalment, they have decided to seize all of Mr. Temaru’s savings from his bank account. They are saying that it’s a preventative measure because they are fearing that he might flee the country or dissipate this money.”
Questioning why funds from a personal account were seized, rather than from his lawyers, Brotherson ridiculed the suggestion from French authorities that Temaru might flee the jurisdiction.
“This is totally ridiculous, of course,” he said. “Mr. Temaru was born here, his whole family is here. He is Mayor of Faa’a and has been Mayor of Faa’a for 37 years now. So, he’s not going anywhere – especially without planes [due to COVID lockdown]. He doesn’t want to go anywhere. He’s always turned up to when he’s been asked to appear before the French courts. This is ridiculous and it’s only an attempt at intimidation.”
The dispute highlights the nature of colonial control over legal structures in France’s overseas collectivities. Unlike the local Government of French Polynesia, which holds a level of legislative and administrative authority under the 2004 Statute of Autonomy, local commun or municipal town councils are still controlled by the French State. Authorities in Paris determine the timing of local government elections and French law applies to the regulation and management of town councils. All French nationals can vote in municipal elections.
This year, for example, Paris delayed the second round of scheduled council elections in March due to the coronavirus crisis. This angered local politicians in French Polynesia, who argued that conditions in Tahiti were different to those in France, which has suffered more than 160,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 30,000 deaths.
The debate over the autonomy of municipal government has raged for decades, especially as many public services jobs are allocated through town councils, rather than the territorial government. This provides opportunity for leaders to build a political base, while French authorities argue the allocation of employment can lead to nepotism or corruption.
In French Polynesia, town halls often become a fiefdom, with political leaders across the political spectrum holding office as mayor for long periods. Many leaders have built a political base in a particular municipality: Tahoera’a Huiraatira’s Gaston Flosse served as Mayor of Pirae from 1965 to 2000 and was succeeded as mayor by Edouard Fritch, his former son-in-law and current President of French Polynesia. In May, former President Gaston Tong Sang was re-elected as Mayor of Bora Bora for his sixth consecutive term. Since he was first elected in 1983, Oscar Temaru has repeatedly served as Mayor of Faa’a, a working class district close to the capital Papeete, which hosts Tahiti’s international airport.
This dispute raises the question of the use of the courts for political purposes, even though in French constitutional law, the subjective and objective impartiality of judges and prosecutors is presumed in law. People brought before a court can only seek the recusal of a judicial officer if they have objective evidence of their bias.
Despite these principles, many Tahitian voters perceive the courts as an institution of the popa’a (Europeans from mainland France), and argue that France’s notoriously bureaucratic administrative and legal culture is inappropriate in a Pacific context. The latest dispute is not the first to question the impartiality of French legal authorities in Tahiti, which has been challenged many times by autonomist as well as pro-independence politicians.
First elected as President in 1984, Gaston Flosse loyally defended France through the era of French nuclear testing. Flosse faced many allegations of corruption throughout the decades, but was widely perceived as protected by the French State, with allegations of corruption never ending in convictions (the late French President Jacques Chirac was godfather to Flosse’s children). It was only after the end of testing in 1996, that French legal authorities began winning convictions against Flosse in cases of corruption or abuse of public office.
In recent years, Flosse has repeatedly accused French legal authorities of bias and partiality against him. In 2016, in a rare occurrence, the president of the Court of Appeal in Papeete Régis Vouaux-Massel formally rejected Flosse’s accusations, stating: “It must be understood that magistrates judge cases in total independence and do not receive instruction from anyone. This independence is guaranteed to all French citizens, whoever they are, and there is no exception in Papeete as elsewhere.”
Despite such declarations, Moetai Brotherson still regards the actions of the French Prosecutor as biased: “I wish there was another explanation, but we have to be realistic. This is nothing but political retaliation, because Mr. Temaru has put all the French Presidents before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for the nuclear testing.”
There are many people in Tahiti who do not support Temaru politically, but in a political culture rife with examples of overt corruption, he is widely seen as someone who has not benefitted personally from public office. Moetai Brotherson said that during his hunger strike, Temaru received public and private support from many people outside his own party.
“During the two weeks of hunger strike, we’ve seen leaders of the church coming to pay a visit and give their support to Mr. Temaru,” Brotherson said. “We’ve seen leaders from the unions and we’ve received messages from most political leaders here, even though they wouldn’t say so publicly. We’ve also received messages of support from Corsica, New Zealand, Australia, from the Maori people and other leaders from the Pacific.”
From New Caledonia, the leading independence party Union Calédonienne issued a call for solidarity with the Maohi leader: “Let us recall the long tradition of the instrumentalisation of the law against autonomist or independence leaders. In October 1959, Pouvana’a a Oopa, who was protesting against the looming nuclear tests, was severely punished in the courts. He was only rehabilitated in 2014 by the Court of Administrative Appeal, because his trial had relied on false evidence. Oscar Temaru is continuing his struggle. We call for solidarity from all democrats against this authoritarian trend from France, and we say that the rule of law must apply in overseas France.”
The dispute comes the very month that the French Senate is – once again – amending the 2010 Morin Law that established the Comité d’indemnisation des victimes des essais nucléaires (CIVEN – Compensation Commission for Nuclear Test Victims). In the first few years of operation, provisions said that there was “negligible risk” of radioactive contamination from French testing. This meant the failure of more than 95 per cent of initial compensation cases lodged by Maohi workers who staffed the Moruroa and Fangataufa test sites. This provision was removed in 2017, but new amendments in December 2018 further restricted access to compensation.
During his scheduled visit to Tahiti last April – postponed during the COVID crisis – President Emmanuel Macron was expected to face public protests over the delays in fixing the legislation. France is still under pressure from the workers’ association Moruroa e Tatou as well as Association 193, a new anti-nuclear group mobilising young people in Tahiti.
As Islands Business goes to press, the case is continuing and may even be relocated to Paris. For Moetai Brotherson, the current legal harassment of Oscar Temaru aims to scare away a younger generation from campaigning on nuclear issues, even as young Tahitians are picking up the torch following the recent deaths of long-time anti-nuclear campaigners John Taroanui Doom, Bruno Barrillot and Roland Oldham.
“By putting so much undue pressure on Oscar Temaru because of his fight against nuclear testing, they are also trying to scare a younger generation by sending a message,” said Brotherson. “If you get involved in this nuclear testing fight, you will lose. I think that’s the very strong political message that the French state is sending with Mr. Temaru’s case.”