In the fifth episode of the podcast series, Nuclear Collateral Damage: Conversations with Survivors and Experts, Youth Fusion spoke with Mere Tuilau, a youth advocate from Fiji.
Together with Ms. Tuilau, Aigerim Seitenova, the host of this series, looked into the destinies of Fijian veterans who were sent to Kiribati Island (Christmas Island), which at the time was a nuclear test site and a colony of the British Empire. Ms. Tuilau spoke on how Fijian soldiers were treated unequally in comparison with other military servicemen and how compensation has not been distributed after they finished their service at the nuclear test site. Ms. Tuilau shared the story of her activism, as a part of Youngsolwara Pacific, in preserving the ocean and the land of the Pacific as sacred symbols of their culture.
About Mere Tuilau
Ms. Tuilau is a human rights activist, facilitator and a youth leader from Fiji. Her advocacy on self-determination, nuclear and ocean spaces comes from over 7 years of lived experience of engagement with Pacific youth and within regional civil society organisations and movements. Her passion in young people as stewards of the vast Pacific Ocean is a testament to the Pacific calls to safeguard, guide and determine their destiny, and to navigate their narratives until Oceania and the people are fully free.
Ms. Tuilau is a member of Youngsolwara Pacific, which was established out of the Matua’s (Mother) Movement – called Wansolwara, a dance gathering in 2014. Youngsolwara Pacific is a regional movement made up of Pacific students, artists, poets, writers, academics and activists who are passionate in safe-guarding their Oceans and self-determination in the Pacific.
In 2017, Youngsolwara Pacific had a gathering in Nadave where two young Marshallese men, Apo and Ahati from the island of Enewetak, shared their knowledge on the impacts of nuclear testing in their islands. Apo and Ahati shared the intergenerational impacts, such as displacement, jellyfish babies, contaminated seawater and various types of cancers that formed as a result of ionizing radiation, such as leukemia and throat cancer. Their stories about their struggle moved Ms. Tuilau, and led her to start learning about the issue and its impact in the region. Thereafter, Ms. Tuilau also learned that some of their own Fijian veterans, who served in nuclear testing sites, were deeply affected by the nuclear radiation as well.
Ms. Tuilau’s passion, together with the collectives, grew more and was then able to address the continuous injustices that were done to them in the Pacific and beyond. Therefore, their work served to be a voice for the voiceless.
For Ms. Tuilau, every platform is an opportunity to share about their struggles, and one of those platforms that she is a part of is the Youth for TPNW (The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons). At the current moment, Ms. Tuilau is preparing for the upcoming 1st Meeting of State Parties (MSP), which takes place the 21st to 23rd of June, 2022. As a part of the Pacific youth delegates, she will attend forums sharing their stories and will put focus on emphasizing that Articles 6 and 7 of the TPNW on victim assistance, environmental remediation and International cooperation and assistance apply to the people of the Pacific.
Nuclear veterans from Fiji and their struggle for reparations:
There were 33 nuclear tests in Kiribati and Malden Islands (9 tests by UK and 24 tests by the US) where some 43,000 personnel participated in the UK and US nuclear weapon tests in and around Kiribati. As a result of the tests, thousands of birds and fish were killed and the ocean was contaminated. At the time, during the end of 1950s when tests were conducted, Fiji was under British colonial rule. Around 300 soldiers were sent to Kiribati Island (Christmas Island) and Malden Island, which were also a British colony at the time. These soldiers were sent to work at the nuclear test site in Kiribati, being a part of the military personnel with servicemen from other countries like the UK, New Zealand, and the US. Those 300 soldiers that went to these islands were of the impression that they were going abroad for some “training”, and were thus unaware of the nuclear testing and only came to know about it upon arrival to the site. Being in their early 20s, soldiers did not understand the nuclear testing program and its impact on their health and personal security. Ms. Tuilau emphasized that Fijian soldiers were allocated difficult or dangerous tasks and were paid less than British soldiers. Moreover, during the nuclear tests, Fijian soldiers were not given any protective measures and were asked only to cover their eyes at the moment of detonation. In 2018, Paul Ah Poy, the President of Fiji Nuclear Veterans Association, in recollection of the events, stated that he, ‘never saw any protective gear at all’ and was ‘never issued with a badge’ to measure radiation.
Some of the Fijian veterans told Nic Maclellan, a journalist who works on the issues in the Pacific, that they supplemented their meals by catching fish, lobsters and crabs and participated in the gathering and dumping of dead, injured and blinded birds. As Ms. Tuilau stated, everything surrounding those soldiers was contaminated by the tests, i.e the work they were doing, food and water they consumed, as well as the very air they breathed.
Unfortunately, to this day Fijian veterans or their families who have suffered long-term effects from radiation exposure after they finished their service have not been compensated, and were not acknowledged by the UK Government to be qualified as those who were impacted by the tests. Many years have passed since the nuclear tests, and as veterans who were under the colony of the British Empire, and who suffered from the testing – they have all the rights to reparations, such as recognition of harm, apology and adequate compensations from the current UK Government.
Referring to the great opportunity to utilise UN human rights mechanisms, Ms. Seitenova mentioned how, in the end of March 2022, Youth Fusion was a part of a coalition which submitted a civil society report to the 41st session of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, thus challenging the UK’s nuclear policy, as well as emphasizing the failure of the UK to provide adequate and necessary reparations. These include survivors of the nuclear tests from Kiribati Island and veterans from Fiji.
In addition to that, as the goal of nuclear weapons or allied states to join the TPNW seems far from being reachable, at least as it stands today, it is important to propose new approaches to see the feasible ways of accomplishing nuclear disarmament. Such proposals and possible approaches to consider were discussed at the recent event NWC Reset: Frameworks for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free-World on the 20th of April, 2022.
Contamination knows no boundaries:
Ocean and land are sacred for indigenous communities in the Pacific through which the rich culture and the spirit of their ancestors give power to the people. Moreover, the land and the ocean provide resources including food and water. In addition to the testing In Kiribati island, France conducted tests in Tahiti, the US conducted tests in the Marshall Islands and in Kiribati as well. Therefore, the Islands of the Pacific have greatly suffered from those tests where, in addition to land, the ocean has been severely contaminated.
Ms. Tuilau eloquently and fairly emphasized that contamination knows no boundaries, as Fish migrate, the wind blows, the ocean temperature rises and the waves carry contamination which are washed up to their shores. The land texture has changed wherein living things cannot survive or live long. Moreover, as Ms. Tuilau said, the intergenerational impact of radiation has no boundaries as well. Servicesmen, victims and families who were exposed to nuclear radiation exposed their own families and their children to cancer related diseases and with climate change, the risks and threats have tripled.
Displacement has caused the loss of culture, and way of life where the indigenous peoples, who gathered their source of livelihood from their natural environment, now depend on supermarket food and medical assistance. There is also loss of memory and many survivors have died without an apology from those who colonized their land and ocean, and brought harm to the people and their lives. Despite islands being decolonized from western hegemonic powers, the impact of those actions in the past, including nuclear testing, is still evident in the present day, thus affecting the lives of thousands of islanders.
It is crucial to note that the antinuclear and peace movement in the Pacific shows the resilience of people and their battle for justice. The formation of a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement in the mid-70s led to the drafting of a People’s Charter under which grassroots, anti-nuclear and independence movements cooperated to press for a comprehensive nuclear-free zone and the recognition of indigenous people’s rights throughout the Pacific. From this, the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty came into being.
Also, Ms. Tuilau stresses the importance of Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day, an event dedicated to the survivors and victims of the Castle Bravo nuclear testing conducted by the US in the Bikini Atoll on the 1st of March, 1954. Every year on that day, in solidarity with Marshallese and with survivors of nuclear tests in the Pacific in general, young people, civil society from the Pacific states and Fiji gather and march to remember those who suffered the negative impact of nuclear testing and reiterate the importance of their nuclear legacy and history which should never be forgotten.
Article by: Aigerim Seitenova