Pacific delegates will play a key role at a major nuclear disarmament conference this week in Austria, as governments discuss the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and implementation of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
Over the last year, Kiribati Ambassador to the United Nations, Teburoro Tito, has played a central role in consultations over treaty provisions on assistance to nuclear survivors. Under British colonial administration, Kiribati was the site for nine UK hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950s. This week in Vienna, Tito – a former President of Kiribati – joins other Pacific delegates to promote mechanisms to assist Pacific islanders living with the health consequences of exposure to ionising radiation.
Provisions of the TPNW nuclear ban treaty also require environmental remediation of nuclear sites. In the Pacific, there’s plenty of work to be done at ten sites across Oceania – from the islands and deserts of Australia, to the land and waters of Marshall Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia, following fifty years of Cold War nuclear testing by the United States, United Kingdom and France.
On 21-23 June, the Austrian government hosts the inaugural TPNW Meeting of State Parties. The nuclear ban treaty, which entered into force in January 2021, has now been ratified by 61 states, while a further 28 states have signed but not yet ratified. In our region, Aotearoa New Zealand and ten island states and territories have ratified or acceded to the treaty: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
In a major change of policy, Australia will now send an official delegation as an observer to the Meeting of State Parties, after the election last month of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Phil Twyford, the Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control in Aotearoa New Zealand, has travelled to Vienna for the nuclear ban conference. Twyford said the NZ government joins Pacific island neighbours to focus on the humanitarian impacts of more than 310 nuclear tests in Oceania, and hopes the summit will look at “the treaty’s positive obligations for state parties, to assist countries that have been affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons and for remediation of contaminated areas.”
Between 18-23 June, the Austrian capital will host four major disarmament events, long delayed by the COVID pandemic.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) will organise a civil society conference on 18-19 June, with Pacific youth and church delegates travelling to Vienna to participate. Host nation Austria will then convene an international conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons on 20 June, followed by an open meeting for parliamentarians from around the globe. These summits will be then followed by the official TPNW Meeting of State Parties (1MSP), to discuss implementation and verification of the nuclear ban treaty.
These events are the result of the campaign initiated by ICAN, a citizens’ movement that was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its disarmament initiatives. With support from the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, global medical associations, indigenous peoples, peace and faith groups, this citizens’ movement has created new momentum around nuclear disarmament, challenging the inaction of the UN Conference on Disarmament and the failure of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
A statement to the summit from the International Committee of the Red Cross notes that “the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons as a necessary first step towards their elimination. In parallel, it provides pathways for future measures to achieve nuclear disarmament and its verification.”
The new TPNW includes unique provisions requiring states to commit to assistance for nuclear survivors – of vital importance to the civilian and military personnel who staffed nuclear tests sites in the Pacific and neighbouring island communities.
Kiribati takes the lead on assistance
Last year, Kiribati and Kazakhstan were jointly appointed to facilitate discussions with governments, UN agencies and civil society groups on the best mechanisms to implement TPNW provisions on assistance to nuclear survivors.
The two countries share the sad experience of being used as testing grounds for atomic and hydrogen bombs. The former Soviet Union tested nearly 500 nuclear devices in Kazakhstan, while the United Kingdom and United States used Christmas Island (Kiritimati) in Kiribati as a nuclear test site. Britain conducted nine atmospheric nuclear tests at Malden and Christmas Islands in 1957-8. The United States then conducted another 24 atmospheric tests on Christmas Island (Kiritimati) in 1962, accompanied by nuclear missile launches from Kalama (Johnston Atoll).
Many service personnel and civilians living near the test sites have suffered serious health effects due to exposure to hazardous levels of ionising radiation, after prevailing winds carried radioactive fallout over vast distances from the test sites.
In their joint working paper to the TPNW summit, Kiribati and Kazakhstan state that “the positive obligations of the Prohibition Treaty are central to its humanitarian goals. Their aim is to address the harm from past use and testing of nuclear weapons, as well as the ongoing and expected future harm from the contamination that resulted.”
Article 6(1) of the treaty obliges each state party to provide assistance to affected individuals within its jurisdiction including, but not limited to, medical care, rehabilitation, and psychological support.
Article 6 (2) also obliges each State party to “take necessary and appropriate measures towards the environmental remediation of areas” under its jurisdiction or control that have been contaminated by the testing or use of nuclear weapons.
Article 7 places extra responsibility on nuclear weapon states that have used or tested nuclear weapons , calling on them to provide “adequate assistance to affected States Parties, for the purpose of victim assistance and environmental remediation.”
For NZ Minister for Disarmament Phil Twyford, “this is long outstanding business in many parts of our region where the nuclear weapons states tested their weapons. They have never fronted up and properly acknowledged the damage that they did, the multigenerational health effects and the degradation of the environment, in all the places where nuclear weapons were tested.”
New Zealand has now joined Kiribati, Marshall Islands and member agencies of the Council of Regional Organisation of the Pacific in a Nuclear Legacies Task Force to advance this agenda (although other countries and territories in Oceania that experienced nuclear tests – such as French Polynesia and Australia – are not participants in the Forum initiative).
Earlier this year, Ambassador Tito wrote: “As a co-facilitator, Kiribati has taken on the responsibility of representing the voices of Pacific countries, which are reluctant to challenge their former colonial powers that possess nuclear weapons. Several of them are still dependent on these nuclear states for security and defence measures, making them reluctant to publicly support progressive nuclear disarmament measures. As a result, these countries have turned to Kiribati to share their perspectives with the international community.”
After months of consultations, the Kiribati and Kazakhstan governments have summarised a range of proposals for consideration at this week’s summit, including: the creation of an implementation framework for articles 6 and 7; requirements for reporting on implementation; the establishment of an international trust fund for affected states; and the need for inclusivity and active participation of nuclear survivors and affected communities.
Observers to meeting
As the nuclear ban treaty was being negotiated, it was first ignored and then fiercely opposed by nuclear weapons states, as well as allies like Australia, Japan and European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which rely on US extended nuclear deterrence.
Now the TPNW has entered into international law, however, the nuclear states and their allies are slowly recognising they must engage with the process, even though some remain concerned it will undercut the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In Vienna this week, alongside governments that have already ratified the TPNW, there are a number of countries participating as observers.
Even as war rages in Ukraine, key NATO members like Germany and Norway will attend the TPNW summit as observers, despite strong pressure from the United States and from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg not to do so. The Republic of the Marshall Islands, which is engaged in bilateral Compact negotiations with the United States, has not yet ratified the treaty, but will attend as an observer, seeking clarity around provisions that should oblige Washington to extend more support to Marshallese survivors of the 67 US nuclear tests on Bikini and Enewetak atolls.
With the election last month of an Australian Labor Party (ALP) government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, there will also be renewed debate in Canberra about the TPNW, which was actively opposed by the outgoing Coalition government. Prime Minister Albanese personally introduced a motion to the ALP national conference in December 2018, committing his party to sign and ratify the TPNW after “addressing the need to ensure complementarity with the NPT and an effective verification and enforcement architecture.”
Last year, the ALP reaffirmed its national policy to sign and ratify TPNW when in government. A majority of MPs in the new Australian government have signed an ICAN Parliamentary Pledge to work for Australia to sign and ratify the treaty, including Prime Minister Albanese (though not Defence Minister Richard Marles or Foreign Minister Penny Wong).
Last week – overturning the policy of the Coalition government led by outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison – the Albanese government announced it would attend the TPNW summit in Vienna as an observer, with a delegation led by Susan Templeman MP.
Despite this, Australia’s bi-partisan decision to purchase nuclear submarines under the September 2021 AUKUS agreement raises concerns about the proliferation of nuclear technologies – an issue to be debated at the next review conference of the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While in opposition, Prime Minister Albanese put conditions on Labor support for proposed nuclear-powered submarines: no requirement for a domestic civil nuclear industry, no acquisition of nuclear weapons, and compatibility with the NPT.
Governments will now meet in New York in August for the NPT review conference – a process long mired in delay and failure. For decades, after the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995, the major nuclear weapon states have refused to commence comprehensive nuclear disarmament negotiations, an obligation set out in Article VI of the treaty.
NZ Minister for Disarmament Twyford says the new TPNW – which calls for nuclear abolition rather than arms control – has only won widespread international support because of the failure of nuclear states and their allies to act on disarmament through the NPT.
“The NPT was already under great stress,” said Twyford. “It’s been the repeated failure of the nuclear weapon states to deliver on their Article 6 obligations over the last six review conferences – a history of ‘non-delivery’ that lead in the early 2000s to the creation of ICAN and a resurgence of activism around the world, which led to the TPNW. Sadly, I don’t think the nuclear weapon states and their allies have done anything to reinstall faith in the international community that they are serious about meeting those commitments.”