The use and testing of nuclear weapons has had catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences, which have been inadequately addressed by global policy. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), negotiated at the United Nations (UN) in 2017, is a categorical rejection of what had been the only weapons of mass destruction not yet banned by international law. But the TPNW also includes “positive obligations,” addressing the ongoing consequences of nuclear weapons use, testing, and related activities. These provisions were a major topic of discussion at the first meeting of states parties to the TPNW in June 2022 in Vienna, Austria. Discussions also centered on survivors’ voices and offered surprising moments of openness and collaboration between states parties and observer states that are not yet party to the TPNW, including some in nuclear alliances. The resulting Vienna Action Plan outlines a practical and forward-looking agenda, addressing the long-neglected impact of the more than 2,000 nuclear detonations in affected communities. It also provides opportunities for states to pursue other diplomatic priorities of the 21st century, including sustainable development, gender equity, disability justice, the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and mitigation of environmental pollution.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Erin Hunt of Mines Acton Canada offered insights on lessons learned for victim assistance from implementing such provisions in the landmine and cluster munition ban treaties.
Matthew Bolton, director of Pace University’s International Disarmament Institute provided a summary of his new report “Humanitarian and Environmental Action to Address Nuclear Harm.” He particularly urged on states to draw on lessons learned from implementing the clearance and demining provisions in other humanitarian disarmament treaties.