Press Release

The Unseen Battle: Addressing the Nuclear Legacy in Pacific Island Countries

24 May 2024

Human Rights Council Resolution 51/35; Technical assistance and capacity-building to address the human rights implications of the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands

As the 4th International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS-4) is set to be held in Antigua and Barbuda from May 27-30, the theme "Charting the Course Towards Resilient Prosperity" resonates with the aspirations of many small island nations. However, for some Pacific Small Island States, this course is fraught with unique challenges stemming from a painful and often overlooked past: The Nuclear Legacy.

From 1946 to 1996, the Pacific region was subjected to hundreds of nuclear tests. Significant tests were conducted in Australia, French Polynesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and the USA’s unincorporated territory of Johnston Atoll. Between 1946 and 1958, 67 known nuclear tests were carried out in the Marshall Islands whilst under United Nations Trusteeship. The initial tests led to the displacement of communities from Bikini Atoll, and its surroundings. On March 1, 1954, the United States’ largest nuclear test, Castle Bravo, caused widespread radioactive contamination, exposing people from neighboring atolls and beyond to radioactive ashes that caused immediate and long-term health and environmental effects.

The enduring effects of these nuclear tests are well-documented. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights reported that the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands resulted in fatalities and serious health complications, and that the radiation had led to environmental contamination and the loss of livelihoods and lands. According to him, nuclear tests have resulted in elevated levels of cancer, birth defects and psychological trauma that continue to this day, and Marshallese women and girls suffered disproportionately from thyroid and other cancers and from reproductive health problems.

In its resolution 51/35, the Human Rights Council expressed serious concern that the toxic nuclear waste and the nuclear radiation and contamination continues to have an adverse impact on the human rights of the people of the Marshall Islands, including to their rights to life, to health, to adequate food, to housing, to water and sanitation, to participation in cultural life, and to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, for present and future generations.

The United Nations, through its Human Rights Office and in cooperation with other UN entities, is providing technical assistance and capacity-building to address the human rights implications of the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands. It has conducted two workshops and several consultations and capacity building activities with all sectors of Marshallese society, and with other international partners. 

The United Nations work in the nuclear legacy goes beyond the Marshallese case. The General Assembly has recently recognized, in its resolution 78/240, the importance of addressing the legacy of nuclear weapons and of providing victim assistance and environmental remediation to Member States affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear legacy's challenges are compounded by the ongoing threats of climate change, particularly for low-lying atolls like the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, which face existential risks from rising sea levels. The resilience and prosperity of these nations are inextricably linked to addressing both climate change and the lingering impacts of nuclear testing.

It is imperative that discussions at SIDS-4 include the negative impact of the nuclear legacy on Pacific Small Island Developing States. It is crucial to acknowledge that, to successfully meet our Sustainable Development Goals for Pacific SIDS, we need to address these unresolved injustices of the past which still pose threats to the present and future development goals.

As we chart the course toward resilient prosperity, let us not forget the enduring struggles of those who have been disproportionately affected by the nuclear legacy. Their path to resilience demands our attention, our action, and our unwavering commitment to justice and human rights. Only by addressing these past wrongs can we truly forge a future where all Small Island Developing States can thrive sustainably and prosperously.

UN entities involved in this initiative

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Resident Coordinator Office

Goals we are supporting through this initiative