The peer-reviewed academic journal Global Policy will soon publish an article by Dr. Matthew Bolton of Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute examining the inadequacy of many current responses to the impact of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing on the human rights of people who were living downwind. The following is an abstract of the article and its policy implications:
Atmospheric nuclear test detonations conducted by USA, USSR, UK, France and China, 1945–1980, generated radioactive particles that were dispersed by weather patterns, returning to earth as fallout. People who lived ‘downwind’ face ongoing risks from their exposure to ionizing radiation, as well as psychological, social, cultural and political distress. However, testing states obscured these humanitarian consequences by claiming that fallout could be contained to specific spatial zones, that there are ‘thresholds’ below which radiation exposure has negligible health impacts and that socio-political forms of harm should be disregarded. While the scientific consensus concludes fallout circulates in complex, nonlinear patterns; there is no safe level of radiation exposure; and nuclear testing can generate tremendous anxiety, what Liboiron calls ‘threshold thinking’ continues to underlie policies ostensibly assisting victims of nuclear weapons. This article offers examples from responses to French Pacific nuclear testing, showing how access to compensation and other assistance has often been conditioned on threshold qualifications that function to limit downwind communities’ access to assistance and remedy. Victim assistance and environmental remediation obligations in the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons offer opportunities to move beyond reductive policy logics to multifaceted, human rights-based approaches to affected communities’ concerns.
Policy making on assistance to victims of nuclear weapons testing must put the voices of survivors themselves – rather than the structures responsible for the test program – at the center of the conversation, taking seriously the disability rights slogan ‘Nothing about us, without us’.
Policy makers should avoid designing policies of assistance to victims of nuclear testing that limit eligibility to people living in pre-determined spatial zones, given the widespread dispersal and non-linear circulation of radioactive fallout.
Victim assistance policy making should start from the presumption that there is no thresh- old below which exposure to radiation is safe, or politically unimportant.
Decision-makers should not deny access to benefits based on qualifying threshold radiation doses; such policies may discriminate against women and girls; Indigenous Peoples; and those with genetic predispositions to cancer.
Global standards of ‘permissible doses’ of radiation protection – based on a trade-off for the claimed benefits of peaceful uses of nuclear energy – should not be used to evade responsibility for the harms of nuclear weapons activities.
Policy makers should design victim assistance programs that recognize and remedy the complex medical, psychological, social, political and economic harms of nuclear test programs.
Policy makers, associations of nuclear weap- ons survivors, civil society organizations and scientists should consider using the forums offered by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to build more holistic and human rights-based approaches to assisting victims of nuclear weapons activities.
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.