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The Contemporary Pacific 17.2 (2005) 339-357

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The Nuclear Issue in the South Pacific:

Labor Parties, Trade Union Movements, and Pacific Island Churches in International Relations

Since the end of World War II, various negotiations, with or without the immediate agreement of the two "superpowers" of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, have been undertaken in order to prevent a military nuclear presence or even the use of civil nuclear power in some parts of the world (the nuclear-weapon-free zones)—or indeed in space. Following treaties relating to the Antarctic (1959) and Latin America (Tlatelolco Treaty, 1967), the Treaty of Rarotonga (Cook Islands), signed on 6 August 1985, seeks to make the South Pacific nuclear free. More recent treaties concern Southeast Asia and Africa (Szurek 1997). In addition, some cities, such as Faa'a, on Tahiti, have proclaimed themselves "nuclear free" without this status having any legal value.

France has generally shown reticence with regard to such treaties.1 This was the case with the Treaty of Rarotonga before France decided to sign it in 1996. In the South Pacific, France has been the focus of opposition from states, trade unions, and churches because it needed to use the South Pacific, which the Anglo-Saxon powers readily consider their backyard. However, France was not the only country to be targeted. From the early 1970s, under the leadership of New Zealand, the Pacific Island countries embarked on what they considered a new crusade, which was to lead to the signing of the Treaty of Rarotonga.

The Cold War and Nuclear Testing in the Pacific

Through the 1951 Australia-New Zealand-United States ( ANZUS ) security pact for the Pacific and the 1954 Southeast Asian Treaty Organization [End Page 339] ( SEATO ), Australia and New Zealand took up a position in the confrontation between the power blocs, even though the nuclear threat did not, in principle, affect them directly. Under these treaties, US warships did not have to declare the nature of the weapons they carried. The governments did not initially react. But when the pacifist movement gathered strength in the early 1980s, Australia and especially New Zealand had to find an appropriate response, as nuclear testing was now taking place in their region, where the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had already disconcerted Pacific Island communities.

From 1945 to 1963, the United States carried out 232 atmospheric nuclear tests. Those that took place in the Pacific occurred on Bikini Atoll (42 explosions) and on Enewetak (60), both in the (now) Republic of the Marshall Islands; on Johnston Island (11) in the Northeast Pacific; and onChristmas (Kiritimati) Island (13), an atoll that is part of the present Republic of Kiribati. The power of the explosion above Enewetak on 1 November 1952 left the island severely damaged.

The United Kingdom carried out its first atmospheric tests from 1952 on Montebello Island off Western Australia, in the Indian Ocean (3), and on two supposedly deserted sites in South Australia, Emu Field and Maralinga (10), with the approval of the Australian authorities, until 1957. Ten other tests, thermonuclear in nature, took place on Malden and Christmas Islands in the (then) British colony of the Gilbert Islands.

Some of the atmospheric testing was not carried out under optimum safety conditions. The July 1946 atomic explosions on Bikini greatly exceeded the forecast maximum radioactivity level. The communities of the Micronesian islands of the US Trust Territories were displaced without being able to return permanently to their ancestral homeland. With the support of various protest movements, they took legal action against Washington for compensation for the high cancer rates affecting them. On 1 March 1954, the first thermonuclear bomb, Bravo, exploded over Bikini (17 megatons rather than the announced 5). Forty-eight hours later,the US Navy evacuated hundreds of people from Rongerik, Rongelap, and Utirik. A Japanese fishing boat, the Fukuryu Maru, found itself in the fallout zone and its twenty-three crew members were seriously contaminated. Henceforth...