U.S. nuclear tests in Pacific Islands: When will Biden offer full compensation?
Abu Naser Al Farabi
FILE PIC: A mushroom cloud forms after a test explosion off the coast of Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, July 25, 1946. /CFP
FILE PIC: A mushroom cloud forms after a test explosion off the coast of Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, July 25, 1946. /CFP

FILE PIC: A mushroom cloud forms after a test explosion off the coast of Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, July 25, 1946. /CFP

Editor's note: Abu Naser Al Farabi is a Dhaka-based columnist and analyst focusing on international politics, especially Asian affairs. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

As the United States has sought to reinvigorate its much-weakened strategic influence in the Pacific region by doubling down its charm offensive toward Pacific Islanders with an apparent aim to band those countries into its China-containment wagon, it is being pressed hard by the Islanders to reconcile its strategic objectives with the legacy of its nuclear testing program in the region during the early Cold War. 

Recently, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua has called for more U.S. compensation over the toxic nuclear legacy to enable the renewal of a strategic agreement, known as Compacts of Free Association (COFA), which was signed by the U.S. and three Pacific Island countries, namely Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.

The treaty governs bilateral relations on issues ranging from economic assistance, migration to exclusive U.S. military jurisdiction over the agreed Island nations. With the compact set to expire at the end of 2023, the renegotiation of the agreement has recently become an intense issue of disputes between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. 

The negotiation process for the renewal of the compacts with the three countries began in 2020 but remained largely stalled up to and throughout 2022 due to the wrangling that has emerged from the Islanders' demands for more U.S. action to address the disastrous consequences of nuclear legacy and the U.S.'s intransigence not to act on redressing its historical misdeeds.

Though both Palau and Micronesia approved their own compact deals with the U.S., the Marshall Islands has yet to finalize the agreement. In January, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Kitlang Kabua and U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations Joseph Yun signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that defined the basic terms of the potential deal.

But Jack Ading, Minister of Finance of the Marshall Islands, complained to a U.S. congressional hearing that the MoU covering terms to extend his country's COFA with Washington was signed without proper domestic authorization and under the pressure of a deadline for inclusion in Joe Biden's budget, The Guardian reported.

While the United States has been pressing hard on the Marshallese government to finalize the deal, Marshallese officials have remained steadfast in their long-standing demand that the United States provide just compensation and offer full acknowledgment of their historical nuclear misdeeds. In January, more than 100 arms-control, environmental, and other activist groups urged the Biden administration to formally apologize to the Marshall Islands and provide fair compensation.

But, to the utter chagrin of the Marshallese people, the U.S. has continued to remain intransigent in its unfounded position that the nuclear matters are settled, largely deflecting its historical liability.

The evidence, however, tells the other way around.

During the early years of the Cold War, the United States used the Marshall Islands as "ground zero" for its nuclear testing "precisely because colonial narratives portrayed the islands as small remote, and unimportant," said Autumn Bordner, a former researcher at Columbia University.

From 1946 to 1958, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, displacing hundreds of native Marshallese people from their homelands with enduring effects of U.S. nuclear testing on the Islanders' health, environment, and economy in the forms of elevated cancer cases, exhaustion of compensation fund, devastated fishing industry, contaminated lagoons, etc.

A dome is built over a huge nuclear test crater on Luunit Island, Marshall Islands, May 27, 2019. /CFP
A dome is built over a huge nuclear test crater on Luunit Island, Marshall Islands, May 27, 2019. /CFP

A dome is built over a huge nuclear test crater on Luunit Island, Marshall Islands, May 27, 2019. /CFP

For example, according to a research by the U.S. National Cancer Institute in 2010, approximately 0.4 percent to 3.6 percent of all cancers among those residents of the Marshall Islands alive between 1948 and 1970 might be attributable to radiation exposures resulting from nuclear testing fallout.

While U.S. officials have continued to push hard the strategic objectives to drag the Island country into its containment strategy targeted at China, it has largely been overlooking the Marshallese plight, showing utter reluctance to offer the country full and just compensation and apologies for its gross human rights violations against indigenous Marshallese people.

While the U.S. insisted that it fulfilled its responsibility, the documents show that U.S. authorities deceived the Marshallese people by concealing key pieces of information about the magnitude and extent of the devastation during the early days of compensation negotiations in the 1980s, attenuating U.S. liabilities to its devastating legacy.

For example, during the signing of the first compact in 1986, the United States didn't tell the Marshallese authorities that it had shipped 130 tons of irradiated soil and nuclear equipment from its atomic testing grounds in Nevada to the Marshall Islands in 1958.

Sealed under an 18-inch-thick cover along with other irritated materials including lethal radioactive debris and plutonium of more than 3.1 million cubic feet, the Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands is now at dire risk of collapse due to climate change-induced sea level rising, with constant leakage from the dome continuing to contaminate waters in and around the atolls.

Moreover, Washington also withheld information about its biological weapons tests on the Islands, including deadly experiments with aerosolized bacteria.

While the U.S. catastrophic legacy has continued to take a devastating toll on Marshallese lives, the U.S.'s "betrayal" against them drags on. The Nuclear Claims Tribunal, an independent arbiter, set by the two countries in 1988, concluded that the United States should pay $2.3 billion in claims. But documents show the U.S. paid just $4 million. And while Marshallese leaders demand additional compensation under their Changed Circumstance Petition based upon revelations of new information, the U.S. authorities dismissed the petition, regardless of Marshallese people's long-standing fight for justice against America's brutal radioactive legacy.

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