Thursday, 06 August 2020

Let’s end the nuclear age, before it ends us

Written by Rev James Bhagwan
US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands in 1946 (Source: US Government) US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands in 1946 (Source: US Government)

Today marks 75 years since the most devastating deployment of weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations.

A whole human lifetime has now passed since tens of thousands of men, women and children in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indiscriminately incinerated by two nuclear bombs dropped by the United States.

In the weeks, months and years that followed tens of thousands more died from radiation sickness or diseases caused by the blasts.

The justification for the bombings, to end the war without a full-scale US invasion of Japan, has never stood up to any objective scrutiny. Certainly the attacks were inexcusable under any moral or ethical framework of any faith or creed I know.

Rather than continuing to try to defend the indefensible, it would be better 75 years on, if we all admitted that the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were killed in a war crime perpetrated for purely geopolitical reasons to cement American supremacy in the postwar order.

The costs of the nuclear age that ensued have been high to the Pacific region I call home.

From 1946 through to 1996, nuclear testing designed to secure world domination was undertaken in the Pacific.

The United States held 109 tests in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Johnson Atoll, Alaska and in the open ocean. The United Kingdom conducted 21 tests in Australia and Kiribati. France conducted 340 tests in Maohi Nui/French Polynesia.

The impact of these tests on the fragile ecology of the region and the health and mental wellbeing of its peoples has been profound, long-lasting and overwhelmingly borne by First Peoples.

The people and environment of the Pacific have suffered as the guinea pigs for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Portions of the Pacific stretching from Enewetak Atoll in the north to Kiritimati Atoll in the centre, to Moruroa Atoll in the southeast remain not only uninhabitable, but are gradually leaking toxic effluent into the ocean, which also happens to be the food source of the region and the fishing ground of the world.

Today, three-quarters of a century after the Bikini Atoll test by the United States, the people of that once beautiful coral paradise remain displaced or physically scarred.

In Maohi Nui/French Polynesia – a quarter of a century after France terminated its nuclear testing programme, the people continue to cry for justice, for compensation, for medical treatment as waste slowly but surely leaches into the sea. Concerns remain of an imminent collapse of Morurua Atoll, which will cause more radioactive debris from the French tests to spill into the open ocean.

Pacific Islanders continue to experience cancers, chronic diseases and congenital abnormalities as a result of the radioactive fallout that blanketed their homes and the vast Pacific Ocean, upon which they depend for their livelihoods.

Servicemen from Australia, New Zealand, France, Fiji, the US and the UK and their descendants also battle these conditions.

Some have received compensation for their injury. Many more still await justice for the damage caused by nuclear testing.

It comes as no surprise then, that Pacific nations are enthusiastic supporters of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Last month, the Fijian Parliament unanimously approved Fiji becoming a state party to the Treaty.

Fiji joins the Cook Islands, Kiribati, New Zealand, Palau, Samoa and Vanuatu in signing and ratifying the treaty. Nauru and Tuvalu have signed but are yet to ratify.

In technical terms, the Treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 50th state ratifies. Forty nations have ratified so far.

International law may well be something more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but the TPNW is an important line in the sand – a moral lever to shift the unbudging. 

Nuclear weapon states and their supporters will have to justify their continued commitment to their deadly arsenals. 

Despite its recent Pacific Step-up charm offensive, when it comes to banning nuclear weapons, a recalcitrant Australia sits firmly in the anti-ban camp… for now. It’s a disappointingly weak position which undermines Australia’s moral authority in the region.

The Treaty also serves as a reminder to all that the danger of mutually assured destruction is closer than ever before.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who created the Doomsday Clock have moved the clock’s minute hand to 100 seconds from midnight.

Their reasoning? The ability of governments to address complex threats is being made more difficult by sophisticated, technology-propelled propaganda, undermining cooperative, science and law-based approaches to managing the most urgent threats to humanity.

The world must move quickly to end any possibility of nuclear war. There must be no chance of even one weapon being ever detonated again.

The only guarantee against the spread and use of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them without delay.

The best, first step down that path is for all nations to support and implement a global ban on nuclear weapons.


Rev James Bhagwan is the General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches. He will join interfaith leaders in an online Hiroshima Day service hosted by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the Uniting Church in Australia from 6pm AEST on Thursday 6 August 2020

Register for the Service via the ICAN website or watch live from 6pm AEST on the Uniting Church in Australia Facebook page.