Will Marshall Islands sign the TPNW nuclear ban treaty?

President Hilda Heine (Photo: Office of the President, Marshall Islands/Facebook)

The two teams lined up face to face. Students from the College of Marshall Islands (CMI) and the Majuro campus of the University of the South Pacific (USP) squared off in a mock debate: should the Marshall Islands sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)? 

Arguments went back and forward, highlighting the horrific damage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the US atomic attack in 1945; the threat of North Korean nuclear missiles to Micronesian states; the danger of nuclear escalation or accidental launch of weapons; the refusal of the United States to sign the nuclear ban treaty; and, above all, how Marshallese are living with the health and environmental legacies of 67 US nuclear tests, conducted at Bikini and Enewetak atolls between 1946 and 1958.

For the young Marshallese, the debate on 28 February was one of a series of events organised to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Bravo atmospheric nuclear test. But the student debate echoes a discussion underway within the government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). 

Until now, despite extensive efforts to address the ongoing legacies of US nuclear testing, successive RMI governments have not signed on to TPNW. Given that people across the Marshall Islands have suffered decades of displacement, medical and mental trauma, why hasn’t the Micronesian nation joined many Pacific neighbours to adopt the nuclear ban treaty?

Nuclear legacies

As part of Operation Castle – a series of Cold War nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands to develop the hydrogen bomb – the US government exploded a thermonuclear weapon on Bikini Atoll on 1 March 1954. The atmospheric nuclear test, codenamed Bravo, had an explosive yield of nearly 15 megatons, a thousand times more powerful than the US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It sent radioactive fallout across most islands of the Micronesian nation, especially the northern atolls.

Decades later, there has been a global mobilisation to address the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, calling for the abolition of nuclear arsenals.

The TPNW disarmament treaty, which entered into force in January 2021, includes unique provisions requiring states parties to commit to assistance for nuclear survivors, as well as environmental remediation of nuclear test sites. Such assistance would benefit affected Pacific communities and the civilian and military personnel who staffed ten test sites across Oceania during fifty years of US, British and French testing (more than 315 atmospheric and underground tests were conducted in Australia, Kiribati, Mā’ohi Nui / French Polynesia, Johnston (Kalama) Atoll and the Marshall Islands between 1946-1996).

TPNW has now been ratified by 70 countries, with a further 23 states that have signed but not yet ratified. In our region, more than half the members of the Pacific Islands Forum have ratified or acceded to the treaty: Aotearoa New Zealand, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Tokelau, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Even Pacific nations still under colonial administration have welcomed the TPNW. On 28 September last year, the Assembly of French Polynesia unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the Treaty, highlighting the legacies of 193 French nuclear tests at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls. Even though France – like other nuclear weapons states – refuses to sign TPNW, the local legislature in Tahiti called on the French government to “work towards France’s adherence to this new international norm.”

Support for survivors

Many civil society groups are surprised that the Marshall Islands hasn’t yet ratified the treaty, despite its courageous diplomacy for disarmament and nuclear clean-up over many decades. 

As she addressed a rally for Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day on 1 March this year, President Heine suggested that her government was reluctant to let the United States off the hook.

“We support the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) short of ratifying it, because it does not go far enough to address the impacts of nuclear weapons,” she said. “Among other issues, the language in the Treaty on assistance and responsibility for clean-up may still be open to interpretation, where certain interpretations would be detrimental to the RMI’s interests.”

Articles 6 and 7 of this humanitarian disarmament treaty include unprecedented obligations on state parties to provide assistance to nuclear survivors and contribute to environmental remediation. 

Speaking to Islands Business at her office in Majuro, RMI President Hilda Heine said that “we support the Treaty, because it’s good for the world. But one of the reasons that Marshall Islands has not ratified the Treaty is one of the articles that speaks to State Parties being responsible for cleaning nuclear damage on their islands and lands, and being responsible for the health of their own people. We’re not ready to absolve the United States of its responsibility.”

“Of course, the US is not a party to the Treaty,” she added. “So if we sign on, it means we’re responsible for cleaning up the nuclear mess, which is not ours to clean. That’s the reason we’re holding back on ratifying the Treaty. Maybe we need to talk to the people who are responsible for the Treaty, to see about that language and how it can be re-worded to help countries like ours. We have a huge amount of environmental cleaning to do that we cannot begin to do ourselves.”

At a time when nuclear arsenals are being modernised and nuclear threats accompany wars in Europe and the Middle East, Pacific churches and NGOs continue to encourage all Forum member states to sign TPNW. Even though it operates under a Compact of Free Association with the United States, the Republic of Palau has signed on to TPNW, but other Forum members are yet to commit: Australia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, the Kingdom of Tonga and Federated States of Micronesia.

As the TPNW was being negotiated, it was first ignored and then fiercely opposed by nuclear weapons states, as well as allies like Japan and European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which rely on US extended nuclear deterrence. 

Despite this, many supportive governments have begun to investigate possible mechanisms to direct assistance to nuclear survivors. In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution from the governments of Kiribati and Kazakhstan, which proposed mechanisms such as an international trust fund for affected communities (In the 161 – 6 – 4 vote, the United States, China, Israel, Pakistan and India all abstained, while France and Britain joined Russia and North Korea as the only four countries in the world to vote No).

US responsibility

Today, the gulf between the RMI and United States on responsibility for nuclear legacies remains wide, even 70 years after the Bravo test on Bikini Atoll. 

At the Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day commemoration on 1 March, US Chargé d’Affaires Lance Posey walked through his talking points (the United States does not currently have an ambassador based in Majuro, a sad reflection of its attitude to its Micronesian partner). Posey acknowledged that the United States had made “mistakes” and “misguided decisions” over nuclear testing. But his speech raised the obvious question: if you make the same mistake 67 times, are you really willing to take responsibility for past actions?

Over many years, the US has funded programs on health care, and has started clean-up programs on a few islands on the north of the country. However the US government has refused to fully fund nearly US2.3 billion in court ruling from the RMI Nuclear Claims Tribunal for damage to property, health and livelihoods. 

Ongoing US inaction is highlighted by the long-term failure of the US Congress to provide adequate funding to address historic nuclear damage to health, environment and property (the latest revised version of the US-RMI Compact of Free Association, signed in October 2023, does not explicitly address the issue of nuclear legacies, with lawyers from the US State Department fearing legal liability).

The anniversary of the Bravo test mobilised Marshallese to remember the trauma for past generations who witnessed the tests. As a new generation steps up, Marshallese leaders – young and old – continue to debate the best way to get the United States to address the historic legacies of nuclear testing, and whether to take the next step to sign TPNW.

And the result of the CMI and USP student debate? The No case won – although after the event, one of the victors told me that his heart said Yes, even as his voice said No.