Ahead of U.S. President Biden’s first-ever anticipated visit to Papua New Guinea (PNG), a network of regional civil society organizations and human rights advocates stressed the need for a regional compensation mechanism to address the harm caused by the U.S. military to the Pacific region.

President Biden has stepped up America’s aid and diplomatic presence in the Pacific since China struck a security deal with the Solomon Islands. With China failing to broker a security and trade pact with 10 Pacific Island Countries, Biden planned to meet with a dozen Pacific leaders as both countries race to expand their presence in the region.

Organizations and advocates are calling on Pacific governments to ensure that this pivot to the region includes a regional compensation mechanism to address past harm, the end of military expansion in the region, and a commitment to promoting a nuclear-free Pacific. 

“The U.S. has pledged renewed support to the region with diplomatic and military engagements. But this has not been accompanied with any real measures to address the ongoing environmental and public health concerns resulting from the historical and ongoing presence of the U.S. military,” said Erin Thomas, ICAAD Director + Change Facilitator.

“The U.S. must stop paying lip service to the human rights of those living in the Pacific and start taking action to right these historical wrongs.”

Military Boats

The harm caused by the U.S. military to the Pacific has been long-documented, and includes nuclear testing, unexploded explosive ordnances (UXO), and environmental harm. While in September 2022, the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to “comprehensively address” the legacy of conflict and promote nuclear nonproliferation in the Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership, there has been virtually no progress. 

The U.S. has not fulfilled its obligations to provide full redress for the nuclear weapons testing program, or provided compensation for injuries and casualties from unexploded explosive ordnance (UXO) explosions in the region. Environmental harm is being billed as a responsibility for Pacific governments in the context of climate change, ignoring that the impacts are a direct result of U.S. activities.

A regional compensation mechanism would go a long way in providing an opportunity for the people who were affected by nuclear radiation, as well as those injured or killed by UXOs and their families, to apply for compensation. This is much more impactful than the official development assistance that the U.S. has offered, as victims in outer islands and rural areas rarely reap the benefits of national level development aid. 

Pacific advocates are calling on Biden to: 

  • End military expansion in the region;
  • Substantially commit to a nuclear-free Pacific; and
  • Directly compensate survivors and families of those impacted by harm caused by the U.S. military. 

Pacific Islands Forum leaders also play an important role in ensuring any U.S. presence is responsible and accountable to harm already caused. Advocates call on the Pacific Islands Forum to establish a regional compensation mechanism to assess the extent of harm, with the aim of managing and disbursing a compensation fund provided by the U.S.

While in PNG, Biden and the PNG government are also expected to sign a security pact which would give U.S. armed forces “uninhibited access” to PNG’s territorial waters and airspace. Given this development, advocates urge the PNG government:

  • Not to sign the security pact with the U.S.;
  • Not let AUKUS into PNG territory; and
  • Not grant access to critical infrastructure for military purposes. 

“There is a real concern that PNG will be dragged into the militarization of the region by the US and China, which only comes as a detriment to its people who have already been subjected to harm from U.S. militarization for decades,” added Erin. “The PNG government should not allow this to stand.”

Overview of attempts at redress and compensation:

  • Lack of Compensation for the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Testing Program in the RMI: The U.S. made the Marshall Islands the testing ground for some of the most powerful nuclear weapons in the world between 1946 and 1958, which included the detonation of 23 atomic and hydrogen bombs at Bikini Atoll and 43 atomic and hydrogen bombs at Enewetak Atoll, with fallout spreading throughout the region. In addition to vaporizing at least six islands and displacing hundreds of residents, the U.S. government ran highly unethical human radiation experiments, withheld information that would force the U.S. to remedy some of the destruction caused, and paid out only a fraction of the claims awarded by the established Nuclear Claims Tribunal.
  • Environmental Harm by U.S. Military Activities: In 1977, the U.S. Army built a temporary structure on Runit Island in the Marshall Islands, called the Runit Dome, to contain nuclear waste from testing in the Enewetak and Bikini atolls. It currently holds over 3.1 million cubic feet of radioactive waste, including 130 tons of radiated soils from Nevada which was transported to the country. During the construction, many of the 4,000 U.S. military service members who worked to build the dome were not aware that they were working with radioactive materials. The Runit Dome is a current environmental threat to local communities and the region as a whole, particularly as sea levels rise, that the U.S. continues to actively ignore. U.S. Military bases continue to pervade environmental harm in the region as well. At the Kwajalein U.S. Military base in the Marshall Islands, U.S. Army studies have found alarming rates of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the lagoon from leakages on the base. PCBs are linked to liver disease, adult-onset jaundice, low birth weight, thyroid disease, compromised immunity, and mental health-related issues.
  • Remaining Explosive Remnants of War, Unexploded Ordnances (UXOs): While the extent of explosive remnants of war in the region is difficult to scope, the Solomon Islands Explosive Ordnance Disposal team has destroyed more than 46,000 bombs since 2011, coming primarily from the area surrounding the capital city, Honiara. Recent deaths and injuries by bombs and shells erupting have raised serious concerns about the lack of redress for health impacts and loss of life caused by U.S. neglect. Contamination persists in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Palau, and Kiribati.