We have no choice but to fight for our future

Mere Tuilau and Bedi Racule will highlight the legacies of nuclear testing in the Pacific. PHOTO: Nic Maclellan

“The threat of nuclear weapons is an existential crisis and we feel the weight that this places on us for our future,” says Bedi Racule. “It can be really hard to face these things, but we have no choice but to fight for our future.”

A student at the University of the South Pacific and intern with the Pacific Conference of Churches, Racule is on her way to Austria this week, as a member of a Pacific youth delegation campaigning for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In Vienna, the young woman from the Marshall Islands will participate in disarmament conferences around the first Meeting of State Parties to the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

This nuclear ban treaty entered into force in January 2017 and includes a comprehensive set of prohibitions around use and development of nuclear weapon. TPNW is one of the few disarmament treaties that obliges countries to provide assistance to survivors of nuclear weapons testing and to contribute to environmental remediation of nuclear sites. The first Meeting of States Parties (1MSP), to be held in Vienna from 20 June, will bring together government delegations to discuss how the nuclear ban treaty can be implemented and verified.

The conference comes at a time of growing US-China tension and war in Ukraine, marked by Russian nuclear sabre-rattling and debate over expansion of the NATO nuclear alliance.

Phil Twyford is Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control in the government of Aotearoa New Zealand. For Twyford, this week’s focus on international law and the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons comes at a crucial time.

“The first Meeting of State Parties is a moment of great celebration against a very sobering backdrop,” he said. “Progress on disarmament has stalled and, in fact, gone backwards over the last couple of decades. The establishment of the nuclear ban treaty is the single brightest light on the horizon.”

He added: “The treaty demonstrates that civil society activism, working in partnership with progressive governments, diplomats and politicians can actually shift the terrain – that public opinion and people of conscience all over the world could influence governments and in fact create new international law to ban, prohibit and abolish nuclear weapons.”

The call for nuclear abolition has strong support across the Pacific islands region, which suffered more than 315 nuclear tests – ten members states of the Pacific Islands Forum have now ratified the TPNW. In Vienna, Pacific government delegations will be supported by civil society representatives, including young people who want to address the legacies of the past and protect their future.

Following the elders’ path

Bedi Racule serves as President of the Marshall Islands Students Association (MISA) at the University of the South Pacific (USP). Born in Majuro, Marshall Islands and growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, she learnt from elders and past activists about the health and environmental legacies of 67 US nuclear tests conducted in her homeland, on Bikini and Enewetak atolls.

“In the Marshall islands, we have really amazing champions for nuclear justice, including Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and the late Darlene Keju – people that we look up to as our role models,” she tells Islands Business. “Then we found that elsewhere in the Pacific, there were many other role models and advocates. We can step into their path and keep the disarmament movement going.”

Marshallese students studying in Fiji realised that many USP students knew little of the adverse effects of 50 years of Cold War nuclear testing. They formed MISA to campaign for greater understanding of US nuclear testing in their home islands and other locations – alongside UK tests in Australia and Kiribati and thirty years of French atmospheric and underground testing in Maohi Nui / French Polynesia.

“From 2017, MISA wanted to have meetings with our peers to raise awareness,” Racule explained. “There were a lot of youth around us that were not aware of our nuclear legacy, let alone any other threats that we as youth are facing. From then, MISA’s little events steadily grew. On 1 March this year, the anniversary of the Bravo test on Bikini Atoll, we had over 300 people show up for our annual rally for nuclear victims.

“For me, it was so humbling to see how much it grew,” she added. “The more that we learn, the more passionate we become and we want to keep working on the issue. Then the more we realise that we need to work together, we need to stand in solidarity for nuclear justice for the Pacific.”

Mere Tuilau, from Tailevu in Fiji, is one of many young people who have taken up the call for nuclear disarmament, while also campaigning for climate justice. A member of the Youngsolwara youth network, Tuilau will travel to Austria to raise awareness of the ongoing nuclear contamination at ten nuclear sites around Oceania.

While there were no nuclear tests in Fiji, Tuilau learned first-hand of the health impacts on survivors while meeting former Fijian soldiers and sailors who had participated in Operation Grapple, the UK nuclear testing program in Kiribati.

“As students at USP, we had a talanoa session with Paul Ah Poy, one of the Fiji nuclear veterans who witnessed the British nuclear tests,” Tuilau said. “He told us about their long court case that did not succeed, and said that we young people have an ongoing responsibility to take up the story to a new generation. This is so important for the surviving veterans and their families, given the inter-generational effects of radiation.

“That’s why we are going to talk about implementation at the conference in Vienna,” she said. “We have to get an apology for them, we have to get the assistance they need and deserve.”

Many young people across the Pacific are already campaigning around climate justice, faced with the immediate impacts of global warming and concerned about the existential threat for their future. Activists have been inspired by global campaigns like Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate Justice. But youth campaigners in the islands are highlighting the connections between social development, environmental degradation and the legacies of colonialism, seeking a holistic understanding of these challenges.

For Marshall Islands’ youth groups, there are clear connections between protecting the oceans, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up the radioactive legacies of 20th Century nuclear testing.

“We always say that nuclear and climate are two sides of the same coin,” said MISA’s Bedi Racule. “That’s because of the Runit Dome and other nuclear waste sites in the Pacific that are polluting our ocean and marine resources. It all comes together to impact the way that we see the security of our future. With sea level rise, the Runit Dome is leaking and if the Marshall Islands is contaminated, the Pacific is contaminated. This is a Pacific legacy that we don’t want, but was forced on us.

“People have asked me if I had to spend time on either climate or nuclear weapons, which one would I pick?” she said. “I’ve replied ‘nuclear’, because there are not enough voices talking about the issue and not enough people listening. We need more voices to make people pay attention to nuclear weapons. Right up there with climate change, nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to our future.”

That call has been heard by many Pacific governments. When the TPNW entered into force in January 2017, ten of the fifty countries ratifying the treaty were members of the Pacific Islands Forum.  This build on past regional disarmament initiatives – island nations are proud of the creation of the 1985 Rarotonga Treaty for a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ), forged at the peak of the 1980s nuclear arms race. As major powers again threaten use of nuclear weapons, island nations will join this month’s meetings to halt expansion of nuclear arsenals.

Gathering in Vienna

From 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) – the civil society network that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize – will organise a civil society conference on 18-19 June. 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.

Then, on 21-23 June, the Austrian government hosts the inaugural Meeting of State Parties (1MSP) to the TPNW. The nuclear ban treaty 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.

Supported by the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, churches and disarmament groups, ICAN are lobbying governments to adopt a political declaration and an action plan, with specific commitments to implement articles of the treaty. The small delegation of Pacific island youth will join church and civil society representatives in Vienna, to carry the voice of the region into these meetings.

“People may think that we are going to this conference to learn, but we are going with a message,” said Bedi Racule. “We are going there to teach them, the Pacific way, with humility and respect. That’s something that’s important about the Meeting of the State Parties – let’s look at the people, let’s look at the lives and the humanitarian aspects of this Treaty. We’re talking about people’s lives in the Pacific. That’s what we want to bring to the meeting in Vienna.”

The Pacific youth delegation have prepared a policy paper to brief government delegates on the ongoing needs of Pacific nuclear survivors, affected communities, former service personnel and their families – around health assistance, environmental clean-up, compensation and recognition.

“A key message we are carrying to the meeting of states parties is the importance of implementation, now that the treaty has entered into force,” Mere Tuilau said. “We also want to call on countries that have not yet signed and ratified the TPNW to come on board. This is about us owning our future and creating our own narrative, about our role as stewards and the peaceful future we want to live in.”