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Small But Mighty: How The Pacific Helped Ban Nuclear Weapons

By Emily Defina, Legal Adviser with the International Committee of the Red Cross

It was 1995. Thousands of people marched peacefully hand-in-hand through the Tahitian capital of Pape’ete. The palm-lined streets were awash with songs of protest. On a nearby shorefront, Cook Islander warriors had just arrived by traditional voyaging canoe: a vaka. They were there to deliver a message of solidarity with their island neighbours, en route to the nuclear test site of Moruroa. These warriors, sailing at the forefront of the Pacific’s fight against nuclear weapons, delivered their message of peaceful resistance with prayers, songs and hakas.

This voyage represented only one call in a chorus of many echoing throughout the Pacific, where people have spoken out against the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. From the atolls of French Polynesia to the Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands, Pacific nations know too well the legacy of nuclear testing. The men and women of Palau, who fought for the world’s first nuclear-free constitution, knew that the effects of nuclear weapons, like pandemics, do not respect human-drawn borders.

25 years on from the historic voyage of the Cook Islands’ vaka, the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is now entering into force. This is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. Its ultimate goal is their total elimination. The treaty was adopted and opened for signature in 2017 but required the commitment of fifty countries to become legally binding. Unsurprisingly, ten of the fifty countries that made this commitment are from the Pacific, with the third smallest nation in the world, Nauru, pushing it over the line. By joining the Treaty, a quarter of the world’s nations are now legally bound to not develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

But what use is such a Treaty when powerful states who possess these weapons are not on board? We often hear when international humanitarian law, also known as the law of war, fails. We are confronted with the use of child soldiers, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the cruel treatment of detainees. One ray of hope in this desolate picture is that these violations achieve their potency by the very fact that we all see them for what they are: violations of the law. Law is an imperfect tool, slower and less effective than we would like, but as we have seen in the past, it does have the power to change behaviour.

Violations of humanitarian law are far from eliminated. But they are certainly stigmatised and there is a vast trove of everyday successes that point to compliance with the law. This makes all the difference to the lives of people affected – wounded fighters allowed through enemy checkpoints, humanitarian relief permitted across frontlines, message conveyed from detainees to their families. These events may not make headlines. But they do represent saved lives, reunited families and communities protected from the worst of war – examples my colleagues in the field witness every day. These moments serve as reminders: we would be worse off without the law.

Treaties that prohibit and limit the use of weapons do have an impact. The Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty led to a reduction in casualties from landmines, the destruction of over 50 million stockpiled mines and the clearance of mine-contaminated land. The use of anti-personnel mines is now widely stigmatised and many militaries have removed these indiscriminate weapons from their arsenals. The development or use of chemical and biological weapons is now so universally condemned that no country in the world would proudly stand by a chemical weapons program on the international stage.


25 years on from when the people of the Cook Islands sailed out, the international community has listened, responded, and said no to nuclear weapons. The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is not the end of the journey, it is only the start of a hard road of diplomatic engagement. Although countries with nuclear weapons are not likely to join the treaty soon, with every country that joins, the momentum builds – paving the way for the eventual elimination of these weapons. The international framework we already have in place to regulate nuclear weapons – such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and our own regional Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, the Treaty of Rarotonga – remains critical. This latest, overarching ban of nuclear weapons only complements efforts and treaties that have come before.

The key role the Pacific has played in making this Treaty a reality underscores the collective might of small and dedicated, peaceful communities. There is work ahead but today we must celebrate what we have achieved so far. Today, a region whose very name means peace has lead the world in committing to a safer future for humanity and our environment. Amid everything else, today is a welcome start to 2021.

The Pacific Island countries who have ratified the TPNW are: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

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