Marshall Islands’ People Still Displaced After 60 Years of Nuclear Tests

Human Wrongs Watch

A “durable solution” has yet to be found to the displacement of communities affected by nuclear testing more than sixty years ago in the Marshall Islands, a UN independent expert warned.

*Photo: Thorpe, Clell photographer

“I have listened to the concerns and stories of affected communities from Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik. As a result of the nuclear testing, all of these communities have suffered dislocation, in one form or another, from their indigenous way of life,” said the Special Rapporteur on the human rights obligations related to environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste, Calin Georgescu.

From 1946 to 158, some 67 nuclear weapons tests were carried out in the Marshall Islands, which were then administered by the United States under trusteeship arrangements with the UN.

Nomads in Their Own Country, with Long-term Health Effects

Georgescu, who recently finished the first fact-finding mission to the Marshall Islands by special rapporteur, said many communities “feel like ‘nomads’ in their own country and many have suffered long-term health effects,” according to a UN report.

Marshall Islands is a Micronesian nation of atolls and islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

As of July 2011 the population was 67,182, living on a total area of 181 km2. In 1986, Marshall Islands achieved independence under the Compact of Free Association with the United States.

The expert underlined the need for strategic and long-term measures to tackle the consequences of the nuclear testing programme to ensure sustainable progress and cope with the specific challenges posed by climate change in the country.

Urgent Need ways to Redress the Situation

He urged the Government of the Marshall Islands, the United States and the international community to find effective ways to redress the situation for those affected.

“The affected communities are searching for solutions, but are yet to feel that they have been restored to a position that is any way equivalent to the life they and their families lived before this dislocation,” Georgescu said.

“Each of the communities from these four affected atolls has a unique history in relation to the nuclear testing and each needs its own solutions.”

Georgescu stressed that education will be key for the long-term survival of the country, as there will be an increasing need to sustainably preserve the cultural and environmental heritage of the country, including the Bikini Atoll which has been declared a World Heritage site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Georgescu is due to present his final report to the Human Rights Council in September.

UN Failure

On 26 September 2011, Marshall Island Foreign minister John Silk told the UN General Assembly that the UN failed to accept the consequences of the decisions it took on nuclear testing in the 1950s, and the people of the Marshall Islands are still paying the penalty physically and psychologically.

Silk stressed that the UN has “a clear responsibility” to tackle the consequence of testing undertaken during the early years of the Cold War.

He said the explosions were carried out despite the petitioning of the UN by Marshallese leaders to end the testing programme, adding that the world body had given assurances of the local population’s protection.

“For decades Marshallese leaders have returned to the United Nations to speak of the continuing impacts – cancer, fear and continued exile from our homelands – and of a science where goalposts are always moving.”

UN Not “to Remain Controlled by History, and Make Excuses”

In 2012, the General Assembly called for a report from the Secretary-General on the effects of atomic radiation in the Marshall Islands.

But Silk said the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which was invited to contribute to the assembling of the report, had deemed the Assembly’s mandate to be inappropriate and in need of correction.

“This is not only insensitive, but reveals that perhaps the UN itself has yet to come to terms, or even to merely acknowledge, its decisions on nuclear safety taken 60 years ago.” This negative approach could preclude efforts to bring to the attention of this body important scientific work that has been done in assessing the consequences of the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, he said.

“It is our hope that the UN will have the courage and will to rise above the past and make a difference, rather than to allow itself to remain controlled by history, and make excuses.”

*Photo: Shipping Lane Patrol Kwajalein Island (Marshall Islands-April 1945). By: Thorpe, Clell [photographer]. Source | Wikimedia Commons

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2012 Human Wrongs Watch

2 Comments to “Marshall Islands’ People Still Displaced After 60 Years of Nuclear Tests”

  1. Hello, This is such an excellent article,

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.


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