Nuclear Betrayal in the Marshall Islands

September 13, 2012 was a historic day at the United Nations and in the Marshall Islands. On this date, in this seventh decade of the nuclear age, the UN Human Rights Council considered the environmental and human rights impacts resulting from the radioactive and toxic substances in nuclear fallout.

And, for the first time in the history of the United Nations, Marshallese citizens stood before a United Nations Council in defense of the human rights of their communities, with survivor testimony on United States nuclear weapons fallout, environment, health and human rights consequences, and the ramifications of continuing failure to achieve environmentally sound management and disposal of the hazardous substances and toxic wastes resulting from US military activities in the Pacific Proving Grounds.

This moment was generated as a result of the work of Mr. Calin Georgescu, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste, who presented the report of his mission to the Marshall Islands and the United States and his findings and recommendations on the human rights consequences of nuclear contamination.

In his visit the Marshall Islands in March 2012, Mr. Georgescu reported that the communities affected by nuclear testing over sixty years ago in the Marshall Islands are still adversely affected by the radiation and near-irreversible environmental contamination from US weapons tests. In his report, the Special Rapporteur noted that these injuries had been most recently confirmed in the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel which recommended that the US “honor and make payments according to the judgments of the Marshall Islands Tribunal”. Yet, for these and other reasons, the Marshallese have yet to find durable solutions to the dislocation to their indigenous ways of life.

As residents of a United Nations designated trust territory governed by the United States, the Marshallese people endured the loss of traditionally-held land and marine resources without negotiation or compensation; were exposed to fallout contamination compromising the environmental health of individuals, communities, and an entire nation; suffered through the documentation of health hazards through a decades-long medical research program that included human radiation experimentation; and, when negotiating the terms of independence in free association with the United States, were severely hampered by the US refusal to fully disclose the full extent of military activities, including the scientific documentation of the environmental and health impacts of serving as the Pacific Proving Ground for weapons of mass destruction

In his visit the Marshall Islands in March 2012, Mr. Georgescu reported that the communities affected by nuclear testing over sixty years ago in the Marshall Islands are still adversely affected by the radiation and near-irreversible environmental contamination from US weapons tests. The Marshallese have yet to find durable solutions to the dislocation to their indigenous ways of life.

Observing that prior efforts to provide redress had been limited in scope and scale, and recognizing that reparation should ideally be restoration of what has been lost, the Special Rapporteur noted that in this case what has been lost is a healthy environment that sustains a viable and culturally distinct way of life. Thus, the principle goal of reparation requires a comprehensive approach for securing the rehabilitation and long-term sustainable development of the Marshallese people. He recommended the immediate development of a national and regional plan for attending to the many ulcerating issues identified in his report, similar to the initiatives undertaken for the benefit of affected-populations by States that historically carried out and continue to carry-out nuclear testing programmes. And outlined an array of specific recommendations which collective represent a framework by which truth, justice, and reparation might achieved through actions involving the Government, the United States, the UN and its specialized agencies and institutions, and members of the international community.

Responding to the Special Rapporteur’s report, Marshall Islands Minister of Foreign Affairs Phillip H. Muller acknowledged that efforts been undertaken by the United States to address the impacts of its nuclear weapons testing program, though “much more remains to be done to address the past, present, and future such impacts on the basic human rights of our Marshallese communities… Adjudicated claims of property loss and personal injury remain unfulfilled… Two UN resolutions on nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands remain the only instances in which the UN ever explicitly authorized the testing of nuclear weapons.  Adopted in 1954 and 1956 in rejection of our petitions to halt the testing, those resolutions made specific assurances of fairness, justice and respect for human rights, which have never been met.  This continued denial of justice to our people is completely unacceptable.” “This report,” Minister Muller observed, “tells the world that the Marshall Islands is entitled to know the truth, to be treated with dignity, and to have all those human rights which should never have been lost.”   The Marshall Islands welcomed the Rapporteur’s recommendations and urged the United States and the international community to do likewise.

The United States response, delivered by State Department Counselor Arselan Suleman, appreciated the opportunity for constructive and open dialogue on the issues and agreed to continued assistance, while reiterating their objection as to the validity of the Special Rapporteur’s major findings. “The United States feels strongly that nuclear testing is not, fundamentally, an issue of ‘management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.’ Particularly when described in terms of ‘improper’ or ‘environmentally sound’ management.” The US disagreed with a number of assertions of human rights law within this report, and disagreed that there is a continuing obligation by the international community to encourage a “final and just resolution” of the issue. The United States position is that it has “acknowledged and acted responsibly upon the negative effects of the nuclear testing” as evidenced by “the full and final settlement of all claims related to the testing contained in the 1986 Compact of Free Association.” Citing expenditures of $600 million to date for various technical problems, including $150 million to settle all nuclear claims, the United States assured the United Nations that “Experts and scientists from across the U.S. Government will continue their decades long engagement in the Marshall Islands to address the issues that arose from our nuclear testing.”

In the ensuing dialogue between nations, institutions, and non-governmental organizations, speakers recognized the continued presence of radioactive contaminants in the Marshall Islands and reaffirmed the existence of a special responsibility by the United States towards the people of the Marshall Islands, and the need for continuing and increased levels of bilateral cooperation.  They also called for radioactive waste, environmental contamination, and related human rights issues of nuclear militarism to be adequately addressed bilateral and through the United Nations system.

Algeria said this report confirms unequivocally the cause and effect relationship between nuclear testing and violation of the right to health, damage to the environment and the displacement of populations and confirms the right of affected populations to an effective remedy. While recognizing that each situation has its own peculiarities, my delegation would like to know if the lessons and recommendations presented in the report of the visit can be extended to other situations of nuclear tests in the world?

Australia said that it had joined with other Pacific Leaders at the Pacific Island Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, in August 2012 in reaffirming recognition of the special circumstances pertaining to the continued presence of radioactive contaminants in the Marshall Island.  Australia welcomed the report of the Special Rapporteur as a contribution to stimulating dialogue between the parties in the spirit of understanding and reconciliation for the benefit of the Marshallese people.

Cuba said that the United States has a responsibility and a debt to the people of the Marshall Islands, which has suffered and continues to suffer the harmful consequences of U.S. nuclear testing program in the territory. They believe, like many other countries, the United States must provide adequate compensation to the victims of their actions to restore their dignity, contribute to the resettlement of displaced populations displaced by the product of radioactive contaminants and also to revive the economic productivity and human development in the affected areas. The negative implications for the enjoyment of fundamental human rights such as food and health should be reversed immediately.

New Zealand, speaking on behalf of the Cook Islands, Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, said during the Forum’s meeting last month in the Cook Islands, leaders had recognized the special circumstances pertaining to the continued presence of radioactive contaminants in the Marshall Islands and reaffirmed the existence of a special responsibility by the United States towards the people of the Marshall Islands. They also called for the issues to be adequately addressed through the United Nations system.

Maldives took note of the first report submitted to the Council by the Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and said that the effect of nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands must be examined from several aspects, such as its impact on the health of the population and the environment.  The support of the international community in this regard was very much needed because many small island States were struggling with multifaceted challenges and did not have the capacity to deal with such adverse impacts on the environment.

Malaysia agreed with the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur for a just and lasting solution to the continuing plight and suffering of the Marshallese People due to the effects of nuclear testing. They asked the Special Rapporteur to clarify whether that obligation rests on the international community, which had placed the Marshall Islands under trusteeship, or the relevant State actor, in its capacity as trustee, which had conducted the nuclear tests.

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation said that the compensation and remediation provided by the United States for the nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands had been insufficient to fully attend to the healthcare and socio-economic needs of the Marshallese people.  The international community, the United States and the Government of the Marshall Islands must develop long-term strategic measures to address the effects of the nuclear testing programme and provide adequate redress to the citizens of the Marshall Islands.

Physicians for Social Responsibility provided an eyewitness account of the nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands by the United States by Jeban Riklon, who had lived on Rongelap Atoll, where no one knew that the United States had planned to test the Bravo bomb on that day and did not know that precautionary measures should have been taken.  The population had been evacuated by the United States only two days later and brought into a military encampment and enrolled in Project 4.1 to study the effects of radiation on human beings.

Cultural Survival also provided an eyewitness account of the nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands by the United States by Lemeyo Abon, President of the ERUB (damaged, broken) association of Marshallese nuclear survivors.  Ms. Abon described the explosion of the bomb Bravo on Bikini Atoll, just 180 km upwind from Rongelap Atoll where she had lived.  The immensely painful consequences were felt even today, with birth of babies with missing limbs and other congenital defects.

In the General Debate, an additional statement was made by Cultural Survival/ Iju in Ean club by Abacca Anjain-Maddison, to reiterate the Marshallese civil society delegation’s endorsement and appreciation of the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur and they look to the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council to work collaboratively with all parties to move the recommendations into action. Concern was also expressed that “the ultimatum of the United States to force the Rongelap community to return to a contaminated environment will represent a new level in human rights abuses perpetuated by the US against the Marshallese.”

In his response to comments, Special Rapporteur Calin Georgescu addressed the US position that consideration his of contamination from nuclear weapons testing was not included in his mandate, stating that “the long history of nuclear weapons testing on the Marshall Islands has produced a significant amount of nuclear radioactive waste which is indubitably toxic in nature and less health and continue to have several impacts to the ability of the Marshallese people to enjoy the full scope of their human rights.”  With regards to the question of liability, the Rapportuer stated “I completely support that the international community has to be involved in this process; it is not only bilateral aspects.”

The UN report concludes with significant, wide-ranging recommendations to address the ulcerating legacy of nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands should request the assistance of relevant UN agencies and bilateral partners to improve water, sanitation and waste management, health and education infrastructure, and to carry out an independent, comprehensive radiological surveys of the entire nation similar to those conducted by the IAEA on testing sites in other countries. Strengthen health infrastructure to address concerns of the whole population. Turn Marshall Islands biodegenerative environment and health history into asset by taking the lead in hosting and fostering collaborative partnerships to develop and implement innovative approaches to monitoring, assessing, and caring for a contaminated environment, human health and well-being.

The United States should continue to support the Marshall Islands in efforts to protect the environment and safeguard the health of its people. Support Marshall Islands efforts to conduct a comprehensive survey and mapping of the radiogenic and other toxic substances remaining in the terrestrial and marine environment from US military activity in that nation. Continue to provide assistance and the means to secure, contain and remediate hazardous sites. Provide full funding for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal to award adequate compensation for past and future claims, and exploring other forms of reparation. Adopt a presumptive approach to groups currently excluded from the special healthcare programmes created by the US to assist survivors of nuclear testing.

And, given the role of the United Nations in establishing the strategic trusteeship of the United States, the international community should recognize and act upon its ongoing obligation to encourage a final and just resolution for the Marshallese people. Support bilateral and multilateral action to assist the Marshall Islands in its efforts to regain use of traditional lands, including the knowledge and means to identify, assess, remediate and restore a sustainable way of life. Invest and participate in collaborative partnerships to develop and deploy technologies and methods to monitor and remediate environmental hazards and reduce health. Support nationally-owned and nationally-led development plans and strategies. Mitigate the effects of climate change. Monitor, secure and remove nuclear wastes on a scale and standard comparable to the clean-up of domestic testing sites in the United States, as part of an international response to nuclear legacy issues.

In his informal remarks during the informal panel Human Rights Impact of Nuclear Testing (organized by Reaching Critical Will and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom), Mr. Georgescu acknowledged that his recommendations are ambitious and in a world where so many other issues compete for attention a full measure of reparation may be difficult to secure.  Yet, he pointed out, it is these other competing issues that make attention to the Marshallese situation so urgent. The failure to fully protect the health and well-being of the Marshallese nation, and the failure to fully and adequately respond to the environmental health disaster resulting from nuclear testing and fallout, has generated an ever-expanding array of rights-abusive conditions that are persistent, pervasive, and alter the very fabric of life.

The urgent need to act is echoed in Lemeyo Abon’s testimony: “We have a saying jej bok non won ke jemake which means ‘if not us, who?’ We have to act now, we have to let peace prevail, this is our time for the future of our children and grandchildren.  I urge this council and the members of the United Nations to take action to not only help us help ourselves, but to make sure that such miseries do not occur ever again.”

As Jeban Riklon noted in his statement to the Human Rights Council, “I am especially happy to be here because it is my right, as a human, to voice and make a plea before this Council for what we have been going through for many years.” After so many decades of silent anguish where Marshallese complaints have been too often been ignored or dismissed, this report, the testimony of Marshallese elders, and the response by assembled nations represents an essential element of reparation. A small measure of dignity has been restored.

For further information:

The report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights obligations related to environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste Addendum 1 – Mission to the Marshall Islands and the United States of America (AHRC/21/48/Add.1)

Addendum 2 – Mission to the Marshall Islands: comments by the State on the report of the Special Rapporteur (A/HRC/21/48/Add.2)

Full video of the Special Rapporteur report on his Mission to the Marshall Islands and the United States begins at 03:36. Webcast of individual comments is also available.

Three parallel events were sponsored by civil society to inform the Human Rights Council on the human rights implications of nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands, and the consequential damages of a flawed radiation health science; human environmental rights conditions resulting from the military use of deleted uranium in Iraq; and a comparative consideration of experience and response to human rights impact of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan, and Australia. Organizers and cosponsors for NGO panels and speakers included Center for Political Ecology, Reaching Critical Will/Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Center for Political Ecology, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Union of Arab Jurists/European Radiation Risk Committee, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Cultural Survival.   For additional information on presentations and the underlying issues, contact:

Barbara Rose Johnston, Center for Political Ecology,
Beatrice Will, Reaching Critical Will/WILPF,
Chris Busby, European Radiation Rsik Committee,
Naji Haraj, Union of Arab Jurists
Rick Wayman, Nucelar Age Peace Foundation

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. She is the co-author of The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. Her most recent book, Water, Cultural Diversity and Global Environmental Change: Emerging Trends, Sustainable Futures? was copublished by UNESCO/Springer in 2012.  She is currently assisting the Special Rapporteur’s efforts to document the human rights consequences of nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands, and supporting advocacy efforts to bring Marshallese citizens to Geneva so their own voices can be heard. Contact her at:

Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.