The first Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is taking place in Vienna from 21-23 June 2022. Countries will come together to begin operationalising the victim assistance, environmental remediation and international cooperation and assistance provisions of the TPNW.
Launched ahead of 1MSP, “Addressing British nuclear tests in Kiribati: a new opportunity for victim assistance and environmental remediation” is co-written by Dr. Matthew Breay Bolton of Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute, along with NGO experts and academics who have conducted significant field and policy research relating to the UK’s nuclear testing. The report, published by the UN Association of the UK, focuses on the harm caused by the UK’s tests in Kiribati in the context of new opportunities for recognition and remediation, given Kiribati’s role as a state party to the TPNW.
From 1952 to 1991 the UK undertook 98 nuclear weapon tests internationally including 45 explosive nuclear weapon tests, as well as 29 minor trial series and facilitation of a further 24 tests which took place on British administered and colonised lands. These tests have had long lasting humanitarian and environmental consequences. Victims include affected communities in the countries where tests took place, including indigenous peoples, as well as the British and colonial service personnel directly involved or serving nearby.
The peer-reviewed academic journal Global Policy will publish a Special Section on “Addressing the Humanitarian and Environmental Consequences of Nuclear Weapons” in its February issue, edited by Dr. Matthew Breay Bolton of Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute and Elizabeth Minor of Article 36. Pace University graduate student Sydney Tisch also co-authored one of the articles, on the impact of UK and US nuclear testing in Kiribati. In recognition of the January 2021 entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the Global Policy team are releasing the articles early online and making them open access over the next couple weeks.
The Special Section aims to be a resource for researchers, policymakers, advocates and journalists, compiling in once place key information on the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear detonations and humanitarian, environmental and development policy efforts to address them. The Special Section includes an overview of the locations all nuclear weapons detonations and a review of their humanitarian and environmental consequences; a detailed case study of US and UK nuclear testing in Kiribati; an interview with survivors in Japan and Kazakhstan; a commentary on existing victim assistance and environment remediation; and a commentary on how best to implement the TPNW victim assistance and environmental remediation obligations. The overall argument running through the articles is that policy interventions to date have not adequately addressed the needs and rights of hibakusha, atomic veterans and test survivors, nor ongoing environmental concerns. The authors argue that the TPNW victim assistance and environmental remediation obligations offer an important new opportunity for addressing the consequences of nuclear detonations, by focusing policy attention and constituting a new field of development assistance.
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.
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.
Teeua Tetua, President of the Association of Cancer Patients Affected by the British and American Bomb Tests, Kiritimati, January 2018. Photo: Matthew Bolton.
Between 1957 and 1962, the UK and USA tested 33 nuclear devices at Malden and Kiritimati (Christmas) Islands, now part of the Republic of Kiribati. British, Fijian, New Zealand and American veterans of the testing program and I-Kiribati civilians who lived on Kiritimati claim their health (as well as their descendants’) was adversely affected by exposure to ionizing radiation. Their concerns are supported by independent medical research. However, analysis of the ongoing humanitarian, human rights and environmental impact of nuclear weapons testing at Kiritimati and Malden Islands has been inadequate. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which Kiribati 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.