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Meet Survivors of Nuclear Testing Calling on U.N. to Secure Just Compensation & Prohibit New Weapons

Web ExclusiveDecember 15, 2023
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The second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the U.N. in New York brought together survivors of nuclear testing from around the world, and we are joined by two of them. Hinamoeura Morgant-Cross is a parliamentarian in French Polynesia, a former French colony in the southern Pacific Ocean that served as a testing ground for France’s nuclear experiments. Her own leukemia is a legacy of the 193 French atomic tests in the South Pacific and motivated her activism to ensure the stories of the victims are remembered and to pressure the French government to accept responsibility and to provide medical and financial support. We also speak with Benetick Kabua Maddison, a U.S.-based Marshallese activist whose work focuses on the legacy of the U.S. atomic tests conducted in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, and the ongoing health, environmental and cultural consequences. He is executive director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative, based in Arkansas. They are both 2023 laureates of the Nuclear-Free Future Awards.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

This week, the second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons took place at the United Nations here in New York, bringing together survivors of nuclear testing from around the world. Today we’re joined by two of them.

Hinamoeura Morgant-Cross is a parliamentarian in French Polynesia, a former French colony in the southern Pacific Ocean that served as a testing ground for France’s nuclear experiments. Her own leukemia is a legacy of the 193 French atomic tests in the South Pacific, motivating her activism to ensure the stories of the victims are remembered and to pressure the French government to accept responsibility and to provide medical and financial support. She led the successful passage of a vote in September in the Assembly of French Polynesia, a department of France, to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The resolution urges France to attend future meetings of states parties as an observer. She’s also one of three 2023 laureates of the Nuclear-Free Future Awards, which were given this week in New York.

Also with us is her fellow Nuclear-Free Future Award winner, Benetick Kabua Maddison, a U.S.-based Mashallese activist whose work focuses on the legacy of the U.S. atomic tests conducted in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, and the ongoing health, environmental and cultural consequences. He’s executive director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative based in Springdale, Arkansas.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with Benetick. You were born in the Marshall Islands. For you, this story encompasses your life and your family’s life, your country’s life, the Marshall Islands. But for others around the world, they may not at all be familiar what happened in the Marshall Islands. Can you talk about these U.S. nuclear tests? When did they happen? Who did they affect? What happened to the Marshallese people?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: Thank you, Amy.

So, the Marshall Islands, where I’m from, were actually used by the U.S. for nuclear weapons testing. The United States tested about 67 large-scale atomic and thermonuclear weapons on Bikini and Enewetak atolls, which are located in the northern part of the Marshalls. Sixty-seven is equivalent to about 7,200 Hiroshima bombs. And as a consequence, we are still dealing with health issues such as cancer. These are leukemia, liver, stomach, thyroid. My country is still dealing with birth defects. And then, of course, diabetes and heart disease. In fact, we have some of the highest rates of diabetes in the world in the Marshall Islands because of the destruction of our lands, lands that people have depended on for centuries to survive. And now we’re having to depend on food that’s imported from the outside world, which is contributing to diabetes and other chronic illnesses that, unfortunately, are killing my people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you go — still go back in time and talk about how did the U.S. drop nuclear bombs on the Marshall Islands?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: So, it’s important to note that after the United States had pushed out the Japanese out of the Marshall Islands, given that the Marshalls were actually under Japan from 1919 up until 1944, and so it became under the U.S. Navy’s responsibility after the war, which made it easy for the United States to utilize the islands for nuclear weapons testing. And know that these testing were done underground, underwater and above ground.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of bombs were dropped or exploded?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: These were atomic and hydrogen bombs.

AMY GOODMAN: And what were the people told? And how close were these to — how close were people to the bombs?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: So, the people were actually told that the nuclear testing program was for the good of mankind and to end all wars. In the early years of the nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands, the U.S. had removed populations on Bikini, as well as Enewetak atolls. But later on, in the ’50s, when they began testing these 10-, 15-megaton nuclear weapons, people actually remained in nearby atolls or islands to where these tests were taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in 1954, days after the devastating Bravo detonation on Bikini Atoll, leaders of the Marshall Islands sent a letter to the United Nations pleading with them to force the U.S. to stop?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: Yes, and that was not once, but it happened twice: one petition in 1954 and another in 1956. These petitions, of course, were signed by Marshallese leaders at the time, because people were getting sick, lands were destroyed, and people couldn’t depend on those ancestral lands to provide for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you have figures on mortality and morbidity rates after these tests started in the Marshall Islands, people injured, people who got cancer and people who died?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: Unfortunately, I don’t have those data. This is a legacy that is still filled with secrecy. In fact, we are still demanding that the United States release all of its classified documents and remove all redactions on these documents.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the documents that were released in the 1990s under the Clinton administration and what you learned from them?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: So, earlier on, we signed this Compact of Free Association, which is a treaty between the Marshall Islands and the United States, and it allows Marshallese to migrate here, like myself and my family, for work, for employment, for education, health. This agreement was signed because of the nuclear weapons testing program. And under this agreement, it only recognizes four areas in the Marshall Islands — Bikini, Utirik, Rongelap and Enewetak — as nuclear-affected areas. However, in the 1990s, when the Bill Clinton administration released documents pertaining to the U.S. nuclear testing program, it showed that the entire country was actually exposed to nuclear fallout.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why are you here in New York? Can you talk about this meeting and your call, along with so many, especially in nuclear testing areas, to abolish nuclear weapons?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: Well, I’m here in New York for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The 2MSP, or the Meeting of State Parties, is happening at the United Nations this week. And folks from all over the world, including those of us from nuclear-affected communities, are here simply to educate others about the impact of nuclear weapons on our communities, not just for the purpose of achieving nuclear justice, but also to push world governments to eliminate these weapons of mass destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Hinamoeura Morgant-Cross into this conversation. She’s currently a parliamentarian in French Polynesia, and she herself is dealing with leukemia, a legacy of the atomic testing on her islands of French Polynesia. Hina, thanks so much for being with us. Congratulations on your Nuclear-Free Futures Award this week in New York as you attend this meeting at the United Nations. But give us a history lesson. What happened to French Polynesia?

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: Thank you. We have been chose by France after the nuclear test in Algeria that had to stop because of the war and Algeria asking their independence. The French were looking for another territory to continue the test. And they chose us because we were one of her — its colony in the Pacific Ocean. So, my people and my land has been chose as a territory of the new nuclear bomb testing of France. And it started in 1966. We didn’t have the choice. It was be imposed to my people. And it ended in 1996. So we had the 193 nuclear bombs on the atoll of Mururoa and Fangataufa. And the nearest island with population was only 100 kilometer to where the bombs were testing.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what the people of French Polynesia were told, and why you think your leukemia is linked to what France did with these 193 tests on your islands.

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: The French state has a very, very important propaganda on our country, on our people. And they always said that — because some of people already knew, despite the fact that we are very far from the world, already knew because of Hiroshima that there was like a disease after a nuclear bomb test. And so, they asked for question to the French government, and the sentence and the message of French government was, “OK, the other nuclear tests are not clean, but the French tests are very clean. Don’t worry. Don’t” — we had also, like, a psychologist helped to make us think that the nuclear bomb is clean with the French tests. So, today, it’s very complex for me to continue the activism, because many of people, they still think that our disease is not linked from the nuclear test, because they still, like — I always say, like, to be an activist, you have to decolonize your mind. It’s why we can’t separate our colonial history to our nuclear history, because we have a colonized mind. Also, we feel like inferior as the French, like if the French say it’s clean, so it’s clean. We are also a little bit candid.

And I realize that maybe my — that my leukemia was a French heritage, legacy, because in my family, every woman had cancer, from my grandma to me, have thyroid problem, breast cancer. And it’s also when I had the — when I met the older affected communities that I realized that we are far from each other, but we have the same sad history about, because we were the territory of nuclear bomb testing. And we today have the same consequences, all the disease, the illness, the problem that Marshall Island had. We have the same in my country.

AMY GOODMAN: There are about, what, 130 islands in the five archipelagos that make up French Polynesia. How many of these islands were bombed or were bombs set off next to them?

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: They used two islands for the nuclear test, Fangataufa and Mururoa. We had some bomb in the atmosphere, I think 46. And because of all the international community that were saying that atmospheric is very bad for the environment, they decided to do the other tests in the ground.

But what I want to say, like, in the ground in a desert, it’s just in the desert. But in the ground in the Pacific Ocean in an island, it’s in the ocean. And our ocean is where we find food. We don’t have cows. In my country, I can eat fish, morning, for the lunch and for the dinner. So I really feel that by saying, “Oh, it was only in the ground. It’s OK. There’s not very a lot of pollution,” no, it wasn’t, because they pollute our lagoon where we found our food.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Hina, what caused France to stop bombing French Polynesia?

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: I think we can thank the international community, all the activists that came in Tahiti to fight against that. And I really think it’s because of the international community that it stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: Hina Morgant-Cross, talk about your own life story, when you learned you had leukemia, and then becoming a member of the parliament of French Polynesia, why you did that and the legislation you put forward.

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: OK. I was 24 years old when I had been diagnosed with the leukemia. And it was very hard, because despite of other women in my family, I really thought that I was lucky to have no thyroid problem. And finally, I have the — I had the worst cancer. But I’m also grateful, because my doctor, he just asked for a simple blood test, and we diagnosed this leukemia, but very earlier. So it’s a chronic leukemia. It’s not the worst. And today I have to take pills as chemo every day to make the disease dormant. So, I’m sick, but it’s also pushing me to fight more. And also I’m a mom, so I’m really fighting to see my two kids grow.

And I decided to go into politics last year at the first MSP in Vienna, because I had only — as an activist, a part of ICAN France, I had only two minutes to speak in front of the state parties. And I really thought that it wasn’t a lot of time, just like, “Hello, I’m from French Polynesia. We have nuclear test,” and then the end. And I was jealous of the other parliamentarians that had like six minutes or 20 minutes and also access to very private meetings. I was like, yes, I wanted to be part of that. So I came back to my country, and I applied to the independent political party, and I have been selected. And since May of this year, I am at the — a parliamentarian at the Assembly of French Polynesia. And it give me more — also more time for this year for the second MSP, but also more tools to continue this fight.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the legislation you pushed this year.

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: OK. I’m very proud of my first text that in my Assembly. It’s a resolution to support the TPNW. And it has been voted anonymously by my — all the Assembly, the 57 members of my Assembly, and I’m very grateful and thankful to them. It was first a message to France, because since few years France message is to definitely turn the page of the nuclear history in Tahiti. So it was a text to tell them that we will never forget what they did. And we can’t also forget because we still have a generation of sick people and belong. And it was a second message to the international community, to all the state parties of the TPNW, to tell them that we want to be — we can’t, because we’re a French territory, but we want to be included in the TPNW as much as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Hina Morgant-Cross, a French Polynesian parliamentarian in the South Pacific, but she’s here in New York, as is Benetick Kabua Maddison, executive director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative, just both awarded the Nuclear-Free Futures Award here in New York at a ceremony. Benetick, can you talk about the significance of this meeting of people who gather from around the world? As we talk today, the U.N. climate summit has begun in the United Arab Emirates. And talk about the link between nuclear weapons and the climate.

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: Yes. So, the significance of this event that’s happening here in New York is that, well, we are trying to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all. And as you know, there’s also that meeting that’s happening right now in Dubai. For us Marshallese, you know, these two existential threats are one and the same. For the Marshall Islands, we are a nuclear-affected state. And, of course, we are a nuclear-affected state that is on the frontline of the climate crisis. In fact, on average, the Marshall Islands is two meters above sea level, so we’re at risk of losing our homelands within our lifetime if the world does not take immediate action against climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: What about reparations, whether we’re talking about what’s happened, Benetick, to the Marshall Islanders, or whether we’re talking about the people of French Polynesia, Hina? What are you demanding of the countries that bombed you for so many years? Benetick, let’s begin with you.

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: I think, for the Marshall Islands, we demand an apology. But we also demand a relationship that is based on trust, accountability and transparency. And we actually wanted that under the renewed Compact of Free Association. I’m not sure how well aware you are with the negotiations that happened since last year, I believe so. But we were hoping that the United States would fully and fairly address the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands, and then, unfortunately, we did not receive that under this renewed compact that was just recently signed last month between the Marshall Islands and the United States. We are only receiving $2.3 billion under this renewed treaty for the next 20 years, $700 million of which the Marshall Islands can use for anything, such as the nuclear legacy in terms of building world-class hospitals, improving the infrastructure in the country. But this money, the Marshall Islands government has designated as nuclear fund; however, the United States does not recognize that.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you about this, Australia agreeing to resettle climate refugees from Tuvalu in exchange for a security pact. Australia signed an agreement with Tuvalu allowing citizens of the low-lying Pacific island nation to take up residency in Australia, should rising sea levels force them to abandon their homes. About 11,000 residents of Tuvalu are among the world’s most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. Can you talk about climate change specifically and the Marshall Islands, and your concerns there, and your demands of the most fossil fuel-reliant countries, the ones that use fossil fuels the most, like the U.S. and China?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: I think relocating communities from Pacific islands to these developed countries is not the answer to addressing the climate crisis. Australia is one of those countries that we have been demanding that it takes immediate and bold actions against climate change, because for my people, moving from our homelands, or pretty much losing our homelands, is not something that we will allow, given that we only are responsible for a very, very small percentage of the global emission. And yet, we will be the first ones to lose our homelands simply because other countries like Australia are not taking bold actions to address the climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Hina, if you can talk about reparations for the people of French Polynesia?

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: OK. As Benetick said, one of — one part of my people, they want to have the forgiveness — it is the word? — of France. Me, I’m not really waiting for that. I’m waiting for France to take his responsibility. And today, what is very, very hard for us is to pick on them to pay all the cost of the disease. In fact, the nuclear tests started in 1966, and in 1977 the French government give us back the health competence as like a gift to give us more autonomy. So, at this time, the politics in French Polynesia, they were like happy: “Oh, we have more competence, more autonomy.” But today, it’s very, very hard for my government to pay all the heavy cost of all the disease, all the illness. And we are 20 years behind in medical care. We don’t have the hospital that can care properly my people.

So, for a part of the sick people, mostly the kids, we are able to take them to Paris, but it’s very, very difficult for the family. Imagine you have to leave the island with your kids. Are the parents be able to quit their job and to go to Paris? And for the others, you can be treated as much as possible at our hospital, but for other people they’re just dying or they don’t get the treatment that they deserve. And it’s why I’m always denouncing that, because we have been the guinea pig of France for 30 years. Today, France is a very powerful state in nuclear energy. They win so much money, and they just forgot us and let my people die today.

AMY GOODMAN: And France — how has France responded to the unanimous now resolution that you put forward in the French Polynesian parliament supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the TPNW?

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: I didn’t have response. But as you had seen, they didn’t came to the state parties even as an observer state. So, no answer for them. They’re still trying to make us turn the page of the nuclear history. And also they don’t recognize all the disease. As Benetick said, we have many issues about diabetes and also obesity. So, today and since decades, they say, “Oh, no, your people, you are sick because you’re too fat.” And also they say that it’s because we eat like too much fish, that we have thyroid cancer. So, today, the dialogue is very, very complex, because they’re not taking their responsibility at all. It’s why I decided to protest not only in Tahiti, but in front of a international community

AMY GOODMAN: And, Benetick, did the U.S. attend the meeting of parties supporting the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons? Did they attend as an observer?

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: Unfortunately, not. And I think it says a lot when these nuclear-armed states do not attend these nuclear disarmament events. We need to take this nuclear issue seriously, because it is impacting the lives of people, millions of people, especially those from communities of colors, marginalized communities like ours.

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: But, Amy, I have to say, since I was able to participate through the parliamentarians’ meeting, I have to say that there were congressmen that participate to our parliamentarians’ meeting. I think his name is Jim McGregor [sic] from Massachusetts. So I think it’s a great way to start the communication between United States and the TPNW.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Congressmember Jim McGovern?

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Hinamoeura Morgant-Cross, parliamentarian from French Polynesia, and Benetick Kabua Maddison, executive director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative, born in the Marshall Islands, but in that space now in Springdale, Arkansas. Both just won the Nuclear-Free Future Award for 2023 and are in New York participating in the second Meeting of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations. Thanks so much, and all the best to you.

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: Thank you.

BENETICK KABUA MADDISON: Thank you.

HINAMOEURA MORGANT-CROSS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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