(June 25, 1992) [The following is excerpted from an article by Catherine Beacham, researcher at the University of the Philippines' Asian Center, which was first published in Midweek and later in ASA News. With the 2nd Global Radiation Victims Conference coming up in September (see WISE NC372.3651), we thought now would be an especially appropriate time to publish it.]
(374/5.3678) WISE Amsterdam - Though US officials have long denied any link between their bombs and the alarming increase in health problems among Micronesians, they have yet to offer a satisfactory explanation as to why hundreds of jellyfish babies are born to Micronesian mothers. Literally, these babies look like blobs of jelly. These babies are born with no eyes, no heads and do not resemble human beings at all. They are twisted things that breathe for only a few hours. After death, they are buried right away. Mothers are not shown their mutated bodies; it would be too inhumane.
In light of the recent controversy over US plans to dump lethal chemical weapons in Micronesia's Johnston Atoll - it is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on the cost of US paternalism through the tragic experience of the Micronesians.
Micronesia is a large island grouping in the Pacific Ocean, located east of the Philippines. It is home to a population of around 150,000. Its 2,100 islands and coral atolls cover an area of approximately 3 million square miles - more then the entire continental US - yet its land mass totals only 700 square miles.
In many ways, Micronesia's history resembles that of other Third World countries, its past marked by the bloody and ruthless exploitation of colonial powers. Successive foreign invaders have attempted to strip the Micronesians of their language, land and culture; yet such efforts have only strengthened Micronesian resolve and desire for freedom.
The United States was assigned administrative jurisdiction over the region which it later subdivided into four arbitrary political sectors - the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Northern Marianas and the Republic of Belau, more commonly known as Palau.
According to article 76 of the United Nations trusteeship charter, the US was obliged to further international peace and security, protect the islanders' physical well-being, promote their social and economic advancement, and aid in their progressive development towards self-government or independence. The US also had the designated right to use the islands' infrastructure, facilities, and territory in any way it desired without ever having to consult the local people. Far from fulfilling its obligations, the US chose Micronesia as a site to develop and test its nuclear technology, and as a base to expand its strategic presence and military capabilities throughout the Pacific region.
Only when the first of 42,000 military and scientific personnel began arriving did the US governor observe protocol and seek consent from the paramount chief to relocate Bikini's 167 inhabitants. "We are testing these bombs," lied the governor, "for the good of [hu]mankind and to end all wars." The chief understood little English but knew of the word "mankind" from the Bible. "If it is in the name of God," he replied, "I am willing to let my people go."
The local inhabitants were transferred to Rongerik, an island with few natural resources 125 miles east of Bikini. They spent a year close to starvation on this sandbar, all the while expecting to go home.
On March 1st, 1954, the US exploded a hydrogen bomb, code-named Bravo, on Bikini. It spread radioactive fallout across the northern Marshall islands reaching as far as the Marianas, nearly 3,000 miles to the west. Fallout also drifted eastward, contaminating several hundred Marshallese people on Rongelap and Utirik Atolls.
More than a decade of being moved from one island to another passed before President Johnson declared the island safe for rehabilitation. Gradually the original inhabitants began to return home. But, by the mid-'70s, follow-up medical examinations showed an 11-fold increase in the body levels of Cesium in most Bikinians while additional tests found radiation in the surrounding waters and soil still far exceeded acceptable limits. In spite of these results, the inhabitants were not re-evacuated for another three years.
For 30 years, the truth behind these shameful acts was concealed until the release of an official US report in the mid-'80s, confirming the suspicions of many: that the Micronesians had been deliberately exposed in order to further knowledge about the effects of radiation on the human body. Sadly, the Micronesians and their homelands are still being used as a source of medical data gathering.
The people of Rongelap and Utirik fared much worse than the hapless Bikinians. Though US military and scientific personnel were well aware of prevailing wind patterns and that those islands were in danger of contamination, the local inhabitants were not evacuated until two days after testing commenced.
The people of Rongelap and Utirik were eventually transferred to Kwajalein for medical checks. Due to a shortage of landing craft many of the sick and elderly had no other alternative but to swim to their rescue ship. Once on board, families with as many as ten children were given just one blanket to share.
Following three months of medical observation, those from Utirik were allowed to return to their contaminated home while the Rongelapese were relocated to Majuro in the Marshall group of islands. The US Atomic Energy Commission declared Rongelap safe for rehabilitation in 1957, and the first illnesses appeared soon thereafter.
US response to this has been to silence the Rongelapese, and as much as possible, to stop any report from filtering out. Although the US Department of Energy (DOE) sends regular inspection teams, these only visit the two islands that the US officially recognizes as affected by fallout from Bravo - Rongelap and Utirik - and even then, they only check people alive at the time of testing (a means of avoiding expensive compensation claims relating to genetic abnormalities in children).
When suspected tumors are diagnosed, islanders are taken to the US, Hawaii, or Guam for surgery, all the while under very close supervision by DOE officials. Victims are not permitted to see their medical records.
Over many years, the people of Rongelap watched helplessly as relatives died from mysterious tumors and as babies were born with grossly dis-figured limbs. Finally in 1978, they petitioned the Marshall Islands government and US authorities to help them to relocate. Assistance was refused. Seven years later, aided by Greenpeace, the people of Rongelap fled their homeland. The original population of Rongelap is now scattered among three islands in Kwajalein Atoll - Mejato, Majuro, and Ebeye.
The 350 people of Mejato are extremely dependent on Rongelaps living elsewhere. Lacking sufficient coconuts and fish to sustain the population, supplies must be brought in from Ebeye twice a month - a journey which takes 11 hours and costs a considerable amount of money.
The situation on Ebeye is no better. Known locally as "the slum of the Pacific", 8,500 people exist in overcrowded shacks on 78 acres. The majority of its inhabitants were relocated there by force after the US Army decided in 1959 to take over parts of Kwajalein, the world's largest atoll, as a range for testing Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).
The inhabitants of Ebeye survive on canned foods, rice and bread. The disruption to their traditional diet has resulted in widespread malnutrition among children. As reported by successive UN Trusteeship Council mis-sions, housing and basic services are sub-standard, there are no job opportunities, and medical facilities consist of one small dilapidated, understaffed, and under equipped hospital.
Many other islands were also effected by US testing. Aside from experi-ments in Bikini, a second series of 43 bombs were exploded in neighbouring Eniwetok Atoll. These caused varying degrees of contamination of most islands within a 10-mile radius of Eniwetok. Five entire islands in this Atoll were actually vaporized.
Unlike other nuclear nomads, the Eniwetok islanders were able to return home on a permanent basis in 1982, following a costly yet half-hearted $200 million effort by the US to clean up its waste.
Nuclear debris was collected and then dumped into a concrete crater build on Runit, a tiny island located in Eniwetok Atoll. The island is off-limits, forever. A few years ago there was leakage into the Runit Lagoon. Poisoned tidal currents have since washed the shores of several inhabited islands less than four miles away. US officials did not bother to order repairs, explaining that the lagoon under threat was already radioactive.
The US government has never bothered to conduct a comprehensive epidemiological study of Micronesia.
Under growing pressure from the UN to end the trusteeships, the US began negotiating new political agreements with the four areas in the late '60s. While the Northern Marianas accepted the original US offer of common-wealth status, the others continued negotiations until 1975 when they settled upon a renewable Compact of Free Association (CFA). Its terms vary for each of the three sectors, but essentially it ensures the US future control over the region's military and foreign affairs in exchange for economic aid and limited autonomy.
Of the three remaining sectors, only Belau has refused to accept the compact, which conflicts with a nuclear-free clause in its 1979 constitution banning the storage, transport and testing of nuclear materials on Belau island and waters. Approved by 92% of the electorate at the time of its adoption, it is the world's first nuclear-free constitution.
For 10 years now, the US has exerted considerable financial and political leverage in trying to resolve this impasse with Belau. The compact has undergone several revisions. Local politicians have been courted by State Department officials, and President Remeliik of Belau - an anti-nuclear president - was assassinated in 1985. Repeated referenda have been forced on the Belauan people. Yet in spite of all the money, all the pressure, and all the unscrupulous tactics, the US has still not been able to produce a favorable outcome. In February 1990, voters went to the polls for an astounding seventh time, again rejecting the CFA and upholding their constitutional sovereignty.
It can be safely assumed that the US will not cease in its attempts to protect its defense and foreign policy interests. These efforts, however, are under increasing challenge, not just from the people of Belau, but many other anti - nuclear activists across Micronesia who oppose their government's acquiescence to the CFA. Indeed, growing anti-nuclear sentiments throughout the entire Pacific have caused much consternation in Washington circles.
Micronesia is just one of many regions in the Pacific marred by the effects of brutal colonialism, but its story is sadder than most. As one writer has aptly stated, "Over the past 40 years the Micronesians have been helpless victims of the US military, human guinea pigs ? on whose persons and on whose soils, America's nuclear technologies could be tested while the United Nations and the world looked the other way".
This is the tragic, little-known reality of US "benign neglect".
Source: Student Union of Hannover University (GreenNet, gn:gn.nuclear, 5 May 1992).
Contact: NEWSLETTER, % AStA Uni Hannover, Student Union of Hannover University, Welfengarten 1, W-3000 Hannover 1, Germany; tel: +49 511-762 506-1,-2,-3; fax: +49 511-717 441.
Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, General Coordination Office, CPO Box 3148, Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand); tel: +64 9-3075 862; fax: -777 651.