By Brittany Nawaqatabu

The second meeting of state parties on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is set to kick off at the United Nations headquarters in New York from the 27 November – 01 December, 2023.

The TPNW outlines the total elimination of the production, testing, use, possession, and threats of the use of nuclear weapons globally. It is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons with the ultimate goal being total elimination and a nuclear free world. The TPNW was first adopted in July 2017, and opened for signature in September 2017, and later entered into force in January 2021

This second meeting of state parties will involve ways to implement the Vienna Action Plan that was adopted at the First Meeting of State Parties in Austria last year. The Vienna action plan calls for strong condemnation of nuclear threats, underscores the urgent need for the TPNW, and commits to implementing the treaty’s provisions to stigmatise and delegitimise nuclear weapons.

It further emphasises the humanitarian basis, moral imperatives, and commitment to global nuclear disarmament. There are currently 93 signatories to the TPNW with a growing list of state parties. Ten Pacific states have signed and ratified the TPNW. Australia, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Kingdom of Tonga have yet to ratify this treaty.

During the recent 52nd Pacific Island Leaders Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Henry Puna, urged all other nations to promptly become parties to the treaty.

He characterised the TPNW as “an extension of foresight” demonstrated by Pacific island leaders over thirty years ago when they ratified the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty in Rarotonga, the Cook Islands, in 1985.

But as the region works towards a nuclear free Pacific, the AUKUS Pact threat looms over the Pacific region. With Australia being a signatory to the Treaty of Rarotonga, their stance remains questionable.

The Pacific Network on Globalisation’s (PANG) Nuclear Campaigner, Epeli Lesuma says that AUKUS threatens the very fabric of our nuclear-free status and the Rarotonga Treaty.

“It was a security pact signed by Australia, itself a member of the Rarotonga Treaty, without the consultation of other Pacific member states. If anything, it is a reminder that while larger, more developed countries will profess to be our ‘partners’ in the Pacific ‘Vuvale’ (family), there will always be a subtle and even at times an overt disrespect of small island developing states and our desire to not be caught in the crossfires of the geopolitical struggles between the USA (and her allies – Australia, New Zealand, UK, etc) and China,” Lesuma noted.

Expressing similar thoughts, Bedi Racule, of the Pacific Conference of Churches, said that AUKUS signals a return to the region being a military playground for the global North. Highlighting the geopolitical implications associated with nuclear development and the transport of radioactive materials across islands and waterways, Bedi stressed the importance for Pacific nations to fortify the Rarotonga Treaty and endorse the TPNW. The objective is to guarantee that neither external nor internal entities transform the Pacific into a nuclear theatre once again.

Lesuma stated that a significant concern among Pacific people revolves around whether the inclusion of nuclear submarines in Australia’s naval capabilities designates the Pacific Islands as a potential ‘target.’ The absence of free prior informed consent from the Pacific raises apprehensions, as Australia’s actions are seen as compromising our peace and security

For Pacific Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), it has been a long fight against nuclear weapons, and testing, drawing from the experiences of nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Long-time nuclear free advocate and Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific campaigner, Dr Vanessa Griffen says this second meeting of state parties is a critical meeting for decisions by states parties on actions going forward in implementing the Treaty. A comprehensive set of actions were discussed and put into the Vienna Action Plan of the First Meeting of State parties in 2022, and are to be decided on and confirmed in this meeting.

Given the Pacific’s nuclear testing legacy, with three nuclear test sites in the region still affected- Marshall Islands, Kiribati and French Poynesia the treaty’s provisions of Articles 6 and 7, focusing on victims’ assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation for assistance, holds much significance. But emerging threats to the region in the form of the AUKUS security Pact with nuclear powered submarines, coupled with the significant concerns over Japan’s Fukushima nuclear wastewater dumping into the Pacific.

Dr Griffen says there must be careful scrutiny of how the Treaty’s commitments, are implemented and who receives victims assistance funds for support, adding that this is to ensure the region’s nuclear test survivors are not subject to further repeated studies, questions and reporting about them from the outside, without commitments to internally prioritize economic, social, political, cultural and psychological support to address the major problems left by the humanitarian impacts of nuclear testing.

Bedi Racule noted that the International Trust Fund for Victims Assistance and environmental remediation under the TPNW is the first of its kind in history. She hopes that Pacific CSOs will hold the international community accountable to their commitments to nuclear justice by pushing for a concrete action plan under the trust fund with inclusion and participation for affected communities across every phase.

“Nuclear affected communities from our region are in dire and urgent need for assistance to tackle nuclear contamination, displacement, health issues, lack of compensation and even education and documentation. We hope that the TPNW sheds light to the plight of countries still seeking recognition and reparations. The TPNW helps to support places like French Polynesia to build stronger cases for compensation”, Bedi commented. She also noted that it is vital to keep the Pacific communities informed about ongoing developments regarding the TPNW which is where the Pacific Collective plays an important role.

With the Compact of Free Association (COFA) hovering over island states like the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Marshall Islands, the battle for ratifications of the treaty is a challenge.

As a Marshallese and a Micronesian woman, Bedi emphasised that, aside from ensuring the TPNW provisions do not exempt the US from its responsibilities to the Marshall Islands, there appears to be no valid reason for RMI and FSM not to endorse the treaty. Notably, Palau, a COFA country, has already signed and ratified the TPNW.

“It would be great if RMI and FSM could send an observer to the 2nd MSP in New York this month”, Racule said

Expressing a hopeful sentiment, Bedi appealed to her leaders to align with the correct side of history, actively pursue genuine peace and security, and eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all. She anticipated ongoing collaboration with partners in both the Marshall Islands and the FSM to raise awareness and advocate for the TPNW while seeking a better understanding of their stance on this matter.

“It is important for all Pacific States to sign the TPNW to not only reaffirm our collective commitment to a nuclear-free region but to meaningfully demonstrate our solidarity with sisters and brothers of the Pacific who to this day continue to suffer from the impacts of nuclear testing and who fight for nuclear justice”, Epeli commented.

Racule concluded that signing the TPNW sends a clear message to the nuclear armed states that the world is changing and nuclear weapons will no longer be a part of it. It is important for our Pacific region to be united in the pursuit of peace and security as well as united in solidarity for nuclear victims. Nuclear weapons will have great risks to Oceania no matter where they are developed, stored or detonated.

The Pacific CSOs remain steadfast in their decision to support the TPNW and hope the 2nd Meeting of State Parties addresses these pressing issues.