Pace University student Sydney Tisch ’20 at UN headquarters in New York City.
The following reflection is from Sydney Tisch ’20, a Pace University undergraduate who participated in the POL297L Global Politics of Disarmament and Arms Control class in Fall 2018. Students were given with service learning assignments with disarmament advocacy organizations working in and around the UN General Assembly First Committee (International Security and Disarmament). For more on the class, click here.
When I was placed with Reaching Critical Will (RCW) for my service learning assignment, I was thrilled. Not only are RCW part of the oldest women’s peace organization in the world – the Women’s International League of Freedom (WILPF), but I was already familiar with the organization as a resource for everything related to disarmament and the UN.
I had used their website and digital archive of statements made in First Committee for projects in previous courses and I was excited to be assisting in the continuance of this vital source of information for activists, NGOs, and member states alike.
However, despite my enthusiasm, little could have prepared me for the realities of the hard work and focus that was required of such intense monitoring and, in my case, note-taking.
Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons’ 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, Canberra, September 2018. Photo: Martin Ollman.
Australian prisoners of war and occupation forces in Japan were exposed to the effects of the atomic bombings. The UK government carried out 12 atmospheric nuclear weapon tests on Australian territories from 1952 to 1957. Further radiological and toxic experiments continued until 1963. The nuclear weapons tests displaced Aboriginal communities, contaminated land and had long-lasting impacts on the health of veterans, civilians and the environment. Australia was also affected by fallout from French Pacific nuclear weapons tests. Interwoven with this complex history are highly contested nuclear projects including uranium mining and proposals for nuclear waste disposal. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons obligates assistance to victims and remediation of contaminated environments. Despite significant pressure from Australian civil society, Australia boycotted the negotiations. To honor nuclear weapons survivors throughout the Pacific and beyond, Australia should sign and ratify the Treaty.
A new report by Dimity Hawkins and published by Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute documents the humanitarian, human rights and environmental harms of nuclear weapons use and testing on Australians, finding that:
16,000 Australian personnel risked exposure to radiation from the atomic bombings in Japan, as POWs and occupation forces.
16,000 military and civilian Australians took part in the 12 atmospheric British nuclear weapons tests between 1952-1963 on Australian territories.
The British nuclear weapons tests left a legacy of environmental contamination.
There were an additional 600 British ‘minor trials’ – subcritical tests – that spread radiological and toxic contamination across the South Australia desert.
Many veterans of the tests and Japanese occupation have health problems consistent with exposure to radiation; descendants also report multi-generational health problems.
Mining of uranium and storage of nuclear waste poses humanitarian and environmental hazards, especially to Indigenous communities in Australia.
Australia was exposed to fallout from French Pacific nuclear testing from 1966 to 1974.
Venting and leaching of radioactive materials from France’s underground test sites into the ocean poses environmental risks to the South Pacific region.
The report recommends that Australia should:
Sign and RATIFY the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Assess and RESPOND to the humanitarian needs of survivors, including nuclear veterans, Aboriginal and other communities affected by nuclear weapons use and testing.
Survey and REMEDIATE contaminated environments in the testing grounds surrounding the Monte Bello islands, Emu Fields and Maralinga.
RESPECT, protect and fulfill the human rights of nuclear veterans and test survivors.
RETELL the stories of the humanitarian and environmental impact of the tests.
Director of the International Disarmament Institute Matthew Bolton has published an article in the Asian Journal of Political Science analyzing the role of Pacific states in the negotiations of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons:
The 2017 Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was negotiated at the UN over the objections of nuclear-armed and -allied states and established a global categorical ban on nuclear weapons framed in terms of humanitarianism, human rights and environmentalism. The TPNW also placed ‘positive obligations’ on states to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediate contaminated environments. States and NGOs from the Pacific region advocated for a strong treaty text, particularly its positive obligations. They were influenced by the region’s history as a site of nuclear weapons testing in Marshall Islands, Kiribati and French Polynesia/Te Ao Maohi; the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone’s precedent; and earlier diplomatic efforts and activism linking denuclearization with decolonization. In doing so, Pacific and other formerly colonized states flipped the ‘standard of civilization’ script embedded in humanitarian disarmament law and applied it to their former colonizers. The paper demonstrates the agency of small states—the ‘-Pacific’ part of ‘Asia-Pacific’—in multilateral policymaking on peace and security, often overlooked in international relations scholarship. It draws on my participant observation in the Nobel Peace Prize-winning advocacy of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) during the TPNW negotiations.
Director of Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute, Matthew Bolton, was featured today on a podcast of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative on humanitarian disarmament. The episode convenes “leading experts and practitioners in the humanitarian disarmament movement” to discuss “humanitarian approach to disarmament, and lessons from particular campaigns, including the Nobel Peace Prize-winning coalitions behind the 2017 Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty and the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, as well ongoing movements to address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, lethal autonomous weapons systems (“killer robots”), toxic remnants of war, and other remaining challenges for civilian protection in armed conflict.”
Bolton spoke primarily about the victim assistance and environmental remediation obligations in the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, highlighting findings from recent research in Kiribati.
Radio New Zealand Pacific covered the new Pace University International Disarmament Institute reports on the humanitarian and human rights impact of UK and US nuclear weapons testing on Kiritimati (Christmas) and Malden Islands. Dr. Matthew Bolton, director of the International Disarmament Institute, argues that the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons offers an new normative framework enabling assistance to victims and remediation of contaminated environments through international cooperation and assistance.
“In addition to the some 500 indigenous I-Kiribati people on Kiritimati island, now part of the Republic of Kiribati, 43,000 military and civilian personnel from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States and Fiji participated in the total of 33 U.K. and U.S. nuclear weapons tests in and around Kiribati between 1957 and 1962. …
“In 2015, Kiribati’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Makurita Baaro stated, “Today, our communities still suffer from the long-term impacts of the tests, experiencing higher rates of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer, due to exposure to radiation. …
“There has never been a sufficiently comprehensive, public, and independent analysis of the environmental impact of nuclear testing at Kiritimati, nor Malden Island. … Nevertheless, there is extensive evidence that the tests killed and maimed wildlife and damaged vegetation. …
“The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) frames nuclear weapons as an affront to humanity and acknowledges the humanitarian and environmental harm of use and testing, including the disproportionate impact on women and girls and indigenous peoples. In addition to banning nuclear weapons, the TPNW obliges states that join it to address the harm inflicted on people and the environment from nuclear weapons use and testing.”
For the International Disarmament Institute’s comprehensive report on the impact of the Kiritimati and Malden Island nuclear weapons tests, click here. For its report on the impact on Fijian veterans, click here.
For the International Disarmament Institute’s general overview of the global humanitarian, human rights and environmental impact of nuclear weapons use and testing, click here.
As illustrated by the lack of availability of a key environmental survey (pictured above), there is very little public information available on the health and environmental risks of UK and US nuclear weapons testing at Kiritimati (Christmas) Island, now in the Republic of Kiribati.
Sydney Tisch ’20, Undergraduate Research Fellow in Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute, reflects on the difficulties of finding information about UK and US nuclear weapons testing at Kiritimati (Christmas) and Malden Islands: “That documents were seemingly impossible to find shows whose lives and bodies we in the West care about and whose we don’t.” Tisch helped with research for the Institute’s reports on the humanitarian, human rights and environmental impact of nuclear weapons testing in Kiribati.
When I found an email from Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute in my inbox asking for applicants for an Undergraduate Research Fellow to assist in a researching on victim assistance for people impacted by nuclear testing in the Pacific, I was excited and, in retrospect, completely unaware of what the position would actually entail.
In the past I had conducted my own research projects for class, where the furthest out of my way I had ever gone was visiting the Bryant Park branch of the New York Public Library to look at documents they had stored in their archives. I had also worked on a research project with Dr. Emily Bent, another professor at Pace University, which primarily consisted of qualitative analysis and coding of data that had already been collected.
Even after I found out I got the position, was handed a literal “List of Things to Find,” and was told that my search to find various environmental surveys would be difficult, I still could not imagine how difficult that could be. In my mind, at most I would be taking a week’s worth of research to find one of the items on the list; it never even occurred to me that I would be unable to procure any of them.
Paul Ah Poy, President of the Fiji Nuclear Veterans Association was posted to Christmas Island during the UK nuclear weapons testing program. Photo: Matthew Bolton.
Between 1957 and 1958, Fijian soldiers participated in the nine UK nuclear weapons tests at Malden and Kiritimati (Christmas) Islands, now part of the Republic of Kiribati. Test veterans, including Fijians, and civilian survivors claim their health (as well as their descendants’) was adversely affected by exposure to ionizing radiation. Their concerns are supported by independent medical research. Though the UK government assured coverage of Fijian troops’ service-related health problems during the tests, it has offered them no assistance or compensation. Instead, the Fiji government has stepped in to offer a one-off grant to veterans to support medical and welfare costs in 2015. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which Fiji has signed but not yet ratified, obligates assistance to victims and remediation of contaminated environments, including those affected by the Christmas and Malden Islands nuclear tests. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for the role of its advocacy in achieving the treaty.
Participants in the 27th UN Conference on Disarmament Issues (UNCDI) in Hiroshima lay flowers at the Cenotaph honoring those who died in the atomic bomb attack.
Full Written Remarks by Matthew Bolton, director of the International Disarmament Institute, for Session on “Education for the Next Generation on the Realities of the Atomic Bombings” at the 27th United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues (UNCDI) in Hiroshima, 29-30 November 2017.
I must admit that when asked to speak on this panel, I initially felt awkward about the request. I have no personal experience with the realities of the atomic bombings here in Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. I have not myself suffered the impacts of nuclear weapons testing in the places where I live. However, in preparing for this panel I have been reflecting on how I came to know about the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons.
I spent some of the first years of my life here in Japan. Though we left when I was only three-years-old, I still have memories of Tokyo and the friends my parents made there would often visit our home in Leicester, England. As a result, I grew up with a positive regard for Japanese people and so always felt disturbed when history classes debated whether the atomic bombings “ended the war.” I could not so easily dismiss the lives of Japanese people as “collateral damage.” I could imagine people in the casualty statistics.
ICAN’s strategy was primarily a discursive one. We aimed to change the way that people talk, think and feel about nuclear weapons, changing their social meaning from symbols of status to outdated, dangerous machines that have repulsive effects.
Representatives of the nuclear-states often marginalize those calling disarmament by dismissing them as deluded. In her protest outside the room where states were negotiating the TPNW, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley chided them, saying “we have to be realistic.” However, ICAN campaigners called attention to the discrepancies between these claims to “realism” and the mystification that surrounded these nuclear weapons.
To change how nuclear weapons were discussed, we brought nuclear weapons into new arenas where humanitarianism, human rights and environmentalism are regular conversations, and to inject these discourses into traditional nuclear forums.
We demanded from states the meaningful participation of survivors, affected communities, medical professionals, faith leaders, humanitarian agencies, activists and academics in the nuclear conversation. We pointed out when forums and panels excluded women, people from the Global South and those who have experienced nuclear weapons’ effects.