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Opinion: PIF leaders fail to get meaningful action on nukes

Monday 13 November 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Editorials, Opinion


Opinion: PIF leaders fail to get meaningful action on nukes
Pacific leaders pose for a group photograph on One Foot Island after attending the Leaders’ Retreat during the Pacific Islands Forum at Aitutaki on Thursday. Picture: MFAI/ 23111001

Over the past week at the 52nd Pacific Island Leaders Forum Meeting, many issues concerning the region’s historical struggle for a Nuclear Free Pacific were discussed, writes Talei Luscia Mangioni.

Between 1946-1996, 315 nuclear weapons tests took place in the Pacific across the Marshall Islands, Australia, Kiribati, Johnston Island and Ma’ohi Nui/French Polynesia.

After many years of resistance by Pacific civil society against nuclear weapons states, the Pacific Islands Forum signed the Treaty of Rarotonga in 1985, which formalised a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone (SPNFZ), banning the use, testing, and possession of nuclear weapons as well as dumping of nuclear waste.

However, contrary to popular belief and contemporary revisionism, upon the SPNFZ opening to signature in 1985, it was heavily criticised by civil society with progressive Pacific states like Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea refusing to sign at the time for not being “comprehensive” enough and that it was watered-down by Forum members Australia and New Zealand in support of United States dominance in the region.

Since September 2021, Australia as a contemporary state party to this Treaty has been called into question for its imposition of the AUKUS military pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States on the greater Pacific.

While Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown has hinted throughout the leaders Forum that SPNFZ would be “revitalised”, in the final communiqué, the Forum leaders have appeared to endorse the AUKUS military pact with no sign of intending to close its loopholes.

Since the announcement of AUKUS in 2021, it has been criticised from the grassroots throughout the Pacific to high-level forums like the United Nations General Assembly by Pacific Islands leaders.

In this year's 2023 PIF communiqué, leaders welcomed a 2023 report of the Secretary General on the status of SPNFZ and ‘noted the requirements of state-parties to report to the Secretary General on any significant events within their jurisdiction affecting implementation of the Treaty’.

This report (which has not been made publicly available) as well as a briefing on AUKUS by Australia during the forum, likely touched on the new AUKUS military pact with the primary ambition to acquire 12 nuclear-powered submarines by 2040. This $368 billion-dollar pact has outraged Australian and Pacific civil society for many reasons: zero consultation taking place with the Australian parliament or Pacific states and its outrageous cost in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, cost of living and climate crises. Another lingering concern is that it will further hardwire Australia - and by proxy the Pacific - into United States’ military operations and ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy which includes assisting nuclear weapons technology, development of US bases, the stationing of nuclear capable US B-52H bombers in the Northern Territory, and regular US/UK ship and submarine visits to Australia and across the Pacific in the interim.

Australia hosting B-52s and investment in nuclear-powered submarines undermines and exploits loopholes in both the Rarotonga Treaty/SPNFZ and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of which they are a state-party’. Australia maintains that the US nuclear-capable B-52H bombers are on “rotation” and therefore it does not constitute “stationing” which would violate SPNFZ. When PM Sitiveni Rabuka was asked at the PIFLM52 press conference on Aitutaki in relation to his new ‘Zone of Peace’ proposal, if the B-52 issue was discussed, Rabuka said that ‘that didn’t come up’. Meanwhile the acquisition of highly-enriched uranium fuelled submarines threatens the safeguard regime set up by the NPT. While the 2023 communiqué urged full compliance of states parties and for the United States, it also simultaneously ‘noted the update provided by Australia’ of AUKUS and ‘welcomed the transparency of Australia’s efforts, and commitment to compliance of with international law’ with reference to the SPNFZ, NPT and safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Australia is pushing this agenda of a regional endorsement of AUKUS going into the future.  However, it is unclear on whose terms that the SPNFZ has been “revitalised”? It has not been strengthened in this instance, though leaders have called for it to be “operationalised” in the future. Will the issue of B-52s be a future issue for Australia to address and table at the Pacific Islands Forum, if it did not do so this time around?

In terms of nuclear legacy issues, Forum leaders ‘commended the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Members for the adoption of a milestone resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on 7 October 2022 regarding “Technical assistance and capacity-building to address the human rights implications of nuclear testing legacy in the Marshall Islands”.

However, nuclear legacy issues were treated slightly differently from previous years. Usually, Forum communiqués only acknowledge the need to address nuclear legacy issues for affected states. However, this time Forum leaders also ‘expressed ongoing concern regarding outstanding nuclear testing legacy issues and reaffirmed Forum Leaders’ commitment to continue support towards bilateral, regional and multilateral action to resolve outstanding nuclear testing legacy issues in the Blue Pacific Continent.’ The shifting position to move beyond bilateral relationships between nuclear weapons testing state and affected state is a welcome change. For example, the United Kingdom has not provided i-Kiribati with any form of bilateral support for those affected by weapons tests, while  Ma’ohi Nui/French Polynesia’s relationship with France is marred by the onerous burden of proof required under the Morin Law on compensation for nuclear test victims.

The language of ‘multilateral action’ hints at the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which has widespread support from Pacific civil society and states, It contains ground-breaking provisions in Articles 6 and 7 for states parties to assist victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, to remediate impacted environments, and to cooperate internationally on this work. The TPNW is the first nuclear weapons agreement to contain obligations to address these impacts.

The TPNW is currently signed and/or ratified by 13 Pacific states (including the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) and entered into force in 2021. In terms of the affected states of Kiribati and French Polynesia, it has strong support. Kiribati is currently a co-chair (alongside Kazakhstan) on the TPNW working group to advance the aforementioned Articles 6 and 7 and led a new UN First Committee resolution on them this year which 171 states voted in favour for. Meanwhile, on 28 September 2023, the Assembly of French Polynesia passed a unanimous resolution that ‘fully supports the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted on 7 July 2017 by the UN General Assembly’.

Unfortunately, there is no explicit mention of the TPNW in Forum outcomes. Even so, the TPNW complements the SPNFZ and provides greater prohibitions that prevent assisting nuclear weapons under military pacts such as AUKUS as well as addressing the ongoing nuclear legacy, Pacific civil society hopes that its urgent universalisation will be on the agenda for future Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meetings.

Talei Luscia Mangioni 

PhD Candidate l AAPS Secretary 

School of Culture, History and Language

College of Asia and the Pacific

The Australian National University