On Thursday, 24 November, a delegation of Pacific islanders will travel to the UN headquarters in New York to call for reparations following nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Kiribati, a former British colony, will be the first nation state to submit materials under Article 6 and 7 of the United Nations Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Dr Becky Alexis-Martin, Peace Studies lecturer at the University of Bradford, will be joining the delegation. She researches the effects of nuclear weapons testing on Pacific islands and gives communities there a voice. Here is her story.
The tiny island of Kiritimati, part of the Kiribati archipelago, a speck in the heart of the Pacific, couldn’t be further from Dr Becky Alexis-Martin’s upbringing in the Midlands.
At 8,200 miles away, it takes the University of Bradford lecturer 32 hours to make the journey, with changes in Australia and Fiji. In Kiritimati, one of the least developed countries in the world, with a population of around 7,000, she stays with contacts in basic accommodation, with no electricity or running water, for months at a time.
There, she speaks to locals in English and i-Kiribati – which she has been learning since 2016 – to understand the long-lasting effects of the 33 nuclear weapons tested by the US and UK around Kiritimati between 1952 to 1962.
“The places where Britain tested nuclear weapons are depicted as desolate wastelands ‘in the Pacific,’ with no specificity,” she said. “But all of these places, like the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia and Kiribati were inhabited, they all had communities living there at the time.”
“Nuclear weapons test veterans are now quite venerated and respected, especially since we have the new Nuclear Test Medal that was introduced this year for those who participated in the UK nuclear testing programme – yet nobody knows about the Kiritimati islanders.”
For years, Kiritimati – pronounced Ki-ri-si-mas – has seen babies born with deformities. According to the Kiritimati Association of Atomic Cancer Patients, 189 families became unwell after the tests.
Dr Alexis-Martin said: “One of the women I spoke to on my last trip is Chair of the Association, Teeua Taukaro, 68. She remembers the explosions from her childhood and told me, ‘I have a little hearing now, but most was lost during the tests. There were many like me, but they haven’t survived this long.’
“Sadly Teeua’s story is not unique. I have heard many tragic stories of family members lost to cancer and babies born with birth defects.”
The average lifespan in Kiribati is just 66 years, compared to 81 in the UK. Data from 2019 showed inhabitants have a 50.1 per cent chance of premature death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory disease.
Much of its once fertile land, where papaya and bread fruit grew in abundance, is now barren due to a combination of nuclear weapons testing and climate change.
“The hospital is very basic, with a small portable cabin for a maternity ward,” said Dr Alexis-Martin. “If you need more complex medical treatment, you have to fly to Fiji or Hawaii, at great expense. Basically, if you get seriously ill, you are likely to die.”
Waste isn’t removed, diets are poor, and the effects of climate change are “so obvious,” with homes destroyed by salt-water intrusion from rising sea levels.
On November 24th, Dr Alexis-Martin will be taking her latest research to the UN headquarters, in New York. She will be accompanied by six young women from the island, aged between 18 and 25, who she has helped the community to select, to talk about their lives, along with former President of Kiribati, Teburoro Tito, Ambassador to the USA and Permanent Representative to the UN.
This small republic, a former British colony, is set to become the first nation state to complete and submit their materials to request reparations under Article 6 and 7 of the United Nations Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which requires that humanitarian aid, reparations and environmental support should be given to affected communities worldwide.
Dr Alexis-Martin has supported this first submission with her data and expertise – and has worked on Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty since before it came into force – something which arose on the exact day in 2021 that she underwent one of several heart surgeries
She said: “I suppose I’ve had quite an unusual life. I’m a young genetic heart condition survivor and I am lucky to be alive. My research reminds me of my own privilege – as I would never have survived on Kiritimati.”
Dr Alexis-Martin, a lecturer in Peace Studies, was just 35 at the time, sporty and a keen rock climber, who has always been slim. Not the stereotypical image of someone with a life-threatening heart condition. She has now joined the University of Bradford and undertaken fieldwork for the first time since her recovery – travelling halfway across the world and difficult living in conditions – and she is looking forward to her future again.
She is an ambassador for North West Hearts Charity and is currently collaborating with the North West Heart Centre, Wythenshawe, Manchester, to study genetic heart conditions in young women who have defibrillators, with funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).
Dr Alexis-Martin’s journey to helping others, whether they are heart patients or inhabitants of tiny Pacific islands, began in emergency management.
“I’ve got a background in Natural Sciences,” she said. “My Masters in Environmental Diagnosis and Management looked at new methods of removing plutonium from soils, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do for a career, so I re-trained as an emergency planner and manager to work on control of major accident hazards and emergency preparation in the UK
After working on the 2012 London Olympics’ resilience, Dr Alexis-Martin was invited to undertake a PhD with Professor Dave Martin OBE at the University of Southampton. She said: “I received the Mayflower Scholarship and went back to school, where I’ve been ever since.”
From 2016 to 2018, she interviewed 144 members of the nuclear test community in the UK about their experiences. The project is filed within the House of Commons library and contributed towards the campaign to award veterans the Nuclear Test Medal, on the grounds of cultural, social, and health reasons.
During this time, Dr Alexis-Martin was also thinking about the other side of nuclear tests, the communities and people who lived in parts of the world where weapons were tested.
“There’s a lot of degradation on Kiribati due to the militarisation of the islands,” she said. “There is an area the size of a football pitch that’s a coral desert, with chunks of charred black coral on an island that’s only 313 square miles, where nothing grows.”
British, American and Fijian soldiers were involved in the testing during Operation Dominic, a combined mission by the US and the UK, which ended in 1962. Kiritimati was also one of the islands involved in a series of tests in Operation Grapple in 1957 and 1958, the largest British nuclear weapons testing ever carried out.
Kiribati was decolonised in 1978. British nuclear test veterans have also joined the fight for compensation and the public release of their medical records.
Dr Alexis-Martin said: “It’s been a really interesting project to be part of. Right from my first fieldwork in Kiribati in 2017, I realised something isn’t right. I feel honoured and humbled to be able to do the work I do to make sure communities are heard.