MAJURO, MARSHALL ISLANDS – The awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is resonating in the Marshall Islands, boosting hopes there will be no repeat of its exposure to radiation from nearly 70 U.S. nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958.
“I am very glad for ICAN, that they received the recognition. I think a nuclear ban treaty is a realistic long-term goal,” President Hilda Heine said in the Pacific island nation’s capital of Majuro, in an interview conducted before the Dec. 10 award ceremony that took place in Oslo some 12,400 km away.
“It gives countries like the Marshall Islands hope that perhaps, in the future, we would be able to eliminate nuclear (weapons) in the world,” she said.
ICAN, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from around 100 countries that was founded in 2007 in Australia, was recognized by the Nobel Committee for efforts that led to the adoption at the United Nations earlier this year of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
The treaty, however, still runs short of the required ratification by 50 countries for entry into force, and it does not have the backing of major powers and nuclear weapons states.
Citing data from the Federation of American Scientists, ICAN said close to 15,000 nuclear weapons are possessed by the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
“It’s disappointing that those nuclear-armed countries are not supportive of the treaty,” lamented Heine, whose country — located near the equator within the larger island group of Micronesia in the Pacific — was chosen by the United States as a nuclear test site after World War II, at which time it was under U.S. administrative control.
Among the 67 tests carried out here, the most powerful and destructive, code-named Castle Bravo, struck Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. It exposed some islands and their residents, as well as the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, to nuclear radiation.
“Nuclear should be a concern for every country. We had our experience with the nuclear testing, and we know what it can cause, and the effects on the lives of people and property,” Foreign Minister John Silk said in a separate interview.
Silk said that in the current situation, where nuclear powers remain outside the treaty, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN goes “a long way towards promoting public opinion” that may eventually force them “to voluntarily reduce their nuclear weapons, and even come to the table to sign up on the agreement at some point in time.”
He added: “That’s very hopeful thinking, but I think that’s what everybody wants to see at the end — a world without nuclear weapons.”
Having been exposed to radioactive fallout on her home island of Rongelap, northwest of Majuro, 69-year-old Nerje Joseph could not agree more.
“They took us away and destroyed our place, our home,” Joseph said of the Americans, in an interview at a home provided for her close to the western tip of Majuro Atoll.
Amid the ballistic missile and nuclear threats from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Joseph, who survived thyroid cancer and had two miscarriages caused by radiation exposure, said in jest, “If I were a man, and I had a weapon, I’d shoot him in the forehead.”
On achieving a nuclear-free world, the mother of 10 children and grandmother of a dozen said, “I don’t really know when it’s going to happen, but I have faith that it will happen soon. … I don’t want this kind of devastation to continue.”
Fellow fallout victim Lemeyo Abon, 77, also from Rongelap, said that more than the compensation she receives from the United States, “what’s important is a place to call home, a place to live freely.”
“The identity of being a Marshallese is gone when you’re moved to another place,” Abon said. “In a way, it took away our identity, and that’s what bothers me most.”
Heine said the Marshall Islands, which created this year the National Nuclear Commission to develop a strategy and plan of action for pursuing justice, will continue to assert to the U.S. government the concerns of the Marshallese, and also work with the U.N.
“We think that the settlement is not enough. We think that the U.S. government still owes the Marshallese compensation for their lost land — the fact that people are not back to their land, they are still nomads in their own country, and also the fact that we have a high rate of cancer,” Heine said. “I think they need to compensate the people and the government for these impacts.”
According to the U.S. Embassy in Majuro, the United States has “expressed regret about the Bravo accident when 253 Marshallese were exposed to high doses of radiation.”
It has extended more than $604 million in compensation to affected communities, while $6.3 million worth of services is annually provided under the Department of Energy Special Medical Care Program and the Environmental Monitoring Program.
Radiation victim Abon, who worries about the future of her seven children and more than 10 grandchildren, remains pessimistic about the prospects for a nuclear-free world “as long as there are selfish people in the world — those that know they have the power, they are smart, and they want to strive to be No. 1.”
But the leader of the tiny nation, which the government says is now home to around 40,000 people spread across 29 low-lying coral atolls and five islands — with another 20,000 citizens in the United States — sees a glimmer of hope with ICAN’s influential efforts.
“The advocacy and the work that ICAN is doing should continue because I think in the long run, people may change their opinions,” Heine said. “If they push the countries to change their opinions, perhaps, there is a future, there is a hope that nuclear-armed countries can actually agree to stop.”