UN Human Rights Council Presses US to Address Nuclear Legacy on the Marshall Islands

On Oct. 7, 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on technical assistance and capacity building to address the human rights implications of the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands which the United States is responsible for. The resolution passed without voting on the basis of consensus. The draft resolution was sponsored by a number of Pacific Islands States and Australia.

The resolution “affirms the importance of addressing the adverse impact of the nuclear legacy on the realization and enjoyment of human rights by the people of the Marshall Islands”.

Currently, the United States denies responsibility for a horrific past of nuclear testing that almost destroyed the Marshall Islands with 67 nuclear bomb detonations over the span of 12 years. The nuclear legacy dates back to the 40s and 50s, with continuing negative impacts until today, 70 years later. The US committed systematic human rights violations and never accounted for the past – until now, until it is now seeking to bring to its side the islands in the Pacific in a geopolitical race against China.

The U.S. government has asserted that the bilateral agreement between the US and the Marshal Islands signed in 1986 settled “all claims, past, present and future,” including nuclear compensation. That stance has been unacceptable to the Marshall Islands who now turn to the UN human rights body and the international community for support.

The resolution reads: “In 1986, the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Marshall Islands entered into bilateral agreements that provided for the settlement of all claims, past, present and future, arising from the nuclear testing, and that the Marshall Islands has lodged a changed circumstances petition with the Congress of the United States of America pursuant to these bilateral agreements, which remains pending”.

The United Kingdom, which is also a nuclear power, opposed the Human Rights Council resolution with the explanation that the UK does not consider that there is international consensus on the legal basis of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. By extension, the UK does not accept the connection made in the Resolution to the testing of nuclear weapons and the impact on human rights.

Earlier in September, the Biden administration brought together the Pacific Island Countries’ leaders to a summit in Washington DC. The Summit included the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands stepped away from the re-negotiations of the bilateral treaty that governs relations between the US and the Marshall Islands, called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). The reason was the US refusal to admit, apologize and compensate for the wrongdoing and rights violations arising out of the US nuclear tests. The US government has argued that the Compact signed in 1986 settles all claims – past, present and future. Unhappy with the outcome, following the Summit in Washington in late September, the Marshall Islands turned to the UN Human Rights Council in October in order to raise their issues before the international community. It is far from over for the Marshal Islands.

The US and other nuclear powers are cautious not to open the door to massive rights-based litigation which will rest upon the right to a clean environment infringed upon by the big nuclear powers. The Marshal Islands are receiving a huge pushback. If the US is seeking a way out it first needs to recognize the horrendous scale of the human rights violations on the Marshall Islands and should compensate the Marshallese who continue suffering the consequences of the nuclear tests every day. Renegotiating the bilateral treaty will depend on that.

Previously, the UN Special Rapporteur carried out a visit to the Marshall Islands in 2012, outlining in a report the negative effect of the nuclear legacy on the enjoyment of human rights.

The Human Rights Council resolution now requests the Office of the High Commissioner to prepare a report on addressing the challenges and barriers to the full realization and enjoyment of the human rights of the people of the Marshall Islands, stemming from the State’s nuclear legacy, to be submitted to the Human Rights Council at its fifty-seventh session, to be followed by an enhanced interactive dialogue, with the participation of the National Nuclear Commission of the Marshall Islands.

[The “Baker” explosion, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. Photo by United States Department of Defense.]

*Iveta Cherneva is an Amazon best-selling author and political commentator. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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