Nuclear weapons and the Pacific

In-Depth News – 12 May 2015


Photograph: Alyson Young


Shailendra Singh, head of the journalism programme at the University of the South Pacific, interviews Eyes of Fire author David Robie for In-Depth News.


From a sense of nuclear outrage to the climate change issues of the future

Could you give an overview of your background and relationship with the anti-nuclear movement?

I wrote about anti-nuclear issues as part of my role as an independent journalist covering South Pacific and environmental affairs. I actually wrote my first “anti-nuclear” stories writing from Paris where I worked for the French global news agency Agence France-Presse in the 1970s. About that time I also wrote my first investigation into French nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa, travelling to French Polynesia for the purpose.

Many of my articles were published all around the Pacific media, including in The Fiji Times, as part of the independent Gemini News Service based in London. Among my earlier articles was this cover story “Challenging Goliath” in the New Internationalist.

What was the focus of the Pacific anti-nuclear movement?

There was a sense of outrage that countries like Britain (Christmas Island), France (Moruroa and Fangataufa) and the United States (Bikini and the Marshall Islands) were using vulnerable Pacific island territories as pawns and carrying out nuclear tests in the region that they were not willing to carry out in their own backyard. The arrogance of the North really upset a lot of people in the Pacific. Newly emerging countries like Vanuatu, led by the late Father Walter Lini, and political leaders like Oscar Temaru, then mayor of the Pape`ete suburb of Fa`aa, the airport township, declared themselves “nuclear-free” to make a statement of independence. New Zealand is often credited with leading the nuclear-free movement in the Pacific. This is misleading because in New Zealand the political leaders, even the late Prime Minister David Lange, were reluctant to lead the cause. It was the ordinary people of New Zealand who stood up to be counted with spectacular waterborne protests and led the movement. The government was pushed into taking up the call. Among politicians, Lini and Temaru were the leaders with vision and were steadfast about nuclear-free issues. I was immensely proud when Walter Lini wrote the foreword to my 1986 book Eyes of Fire about the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French state terrorists in 1985.

This book was republished 20 years later as a memorial edition and is now coming out as a new edition to mark the 30th anniversary of the bombing on 10 July 2015.

What were the achievements?

In the end the movement succeeded. They forced a halt to French nuclear tests in 1996 and have won partial compensation packages for the health and environmental devastation in both French Polynesia and Micronesia. Oscar Temaru has even been president of French Polynesia several times. But it has been hard for him to make progress because as soon as anything contentious becomes before the Assembly, the parties of the right have managed to oust him. But still the people of Polynesia and Micronesia are awaiting full justice.

The anti-nuclear movement in the Pacific seems to have waned. Why is this?

While France was still conducting nuclear tests in the Pacific, there was still a big ogre power to focus attention on. Altogether France detonated 193 of a total of 210 nuclear tests in the South Pacific (the rest were in Algeria), 46 of them dumping more than nine megatons of explosive energy in the atmosphere – 42 over Moruroa and four over Fangataufa atolls. Outrageous. Once the end of these tests were achieved, other issues emerged in the region, such as the critical one now – climate change. But the battle still continues for compensation for the lives of islanders whose health was devastated during those testing years.

Nuclear testing in the Pacific has stopped but the nuclear arms race continues. How is this a threat to the Pacific?

Previously the Cold War power plays between the old Soviet Union and the United States (with France as a proxy for the US) were a threat to the Pacific. With both aides playing off their pawns against each other. Now the China and US rivalry is the big threat for the region, especially with speculation about China’s eventual plans for Taiwan and the potential for nuclear conflict.

There is an international nuclear disarmament movement. What is stopping the Pacific from being part of this?

Rivalry over national aid donors and the unwillingness of Pacific countries to step too far out of line with their perceived supporters.

Should the Pacific be a part of this? Yes, it should be. I am an independent Pacific journalist, but as writer and researcher I see it as a no-brainer about the Pacific being part of the nuclear disarmament movement. It is critical to keep the region nuclear-free and concentrate the region’s resources on climate change. This is now the number one issue confronting the region. In the 1980s in the Pacific, the buzzword was the nuclear refugees, now it is climate change refugees and the world’s human rights bodies are slow to take up the challenge of recognising what will become a growing problem and developing appropriate policies.

How do you see New Zealand Government stance on the issue, and can it play some kind of leadership role?

New Zealand should be taking a leadership role, but we have lost our way politically and about disarmament issues under this current neoliberal government. Our once proud nuclear-free Pacific credentials are eroding. Instead of rushing to send off our young men as a military deployment in Iraq against ISIS (Islamic State), our small country should be putting its resources into peacekeeping. Ironically, coup-prone Fiji has been a much better world citizen in this respect.


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