Negotiations between the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the United States have hit a roadblock over ongoing grievances relating to nuclear testing dating back 70 years on the atolls in the heart of the Pacific.
These were important discussions to renew the terms of the Compact of Free Association, a key international agreement between the US, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. This ensures US funding in return for the US conducting military exercises.
It is believed that the parliament in Majuro made the call to stop the talks. The Marshall Islands are refusing to continue talks unless Washington addresses ongoing health, environmental and economic issues resulting from US testing of nuclear weapons on the idyllic atolls.
Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. The US conducted 23 of these tests at Bikini Atoll, and 44 near Enewetak Atoll, but the fallout spread throughout the Marshall Islands.
During the post-World War II period the US expanded their nuclear research and development programs. The US Government established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to monitor the peacetime development of atomic science and technology.
Fear of the Soviet Union increased their atomic weapons, and the belief that building up nuclear arms could help establish US power, contributed to this rapid expansion.
According to a 2016 Columbia University study, radiation levels in some areas of the Marshall Islands are almost double what is deemed safe for human habitation; but overall the islands are slowly becoming less radioactive.
Very few Marshallese today live on Rongelap and Enewetak Atolls. The Marshall Islands submitted a proposed settlement agreement to US negotiators during the second round of talks in July, but there has been no response.
The Marshallese team renegotiating the agreement is refusing to travel to further talks in Washington. Kenneth Kedi, speaker of the Marshalls’ parliament said it was not prudent to spend over US$100,000 for the Marshallese delegation to travel to Washington unless their concerns were addressed.
The US State Department released a statement through the embassy in Majuro saying Joseph Yun, US special envoy for Compact negotiations, would meet with Marshalls President David Kabua this week in Washington to continue to advance the discussions.
The Pacific leaders are set to meet with US president Joe Biden later this week and it is believed that the Marshall Islands will bring this issue to the table.
The Marshall Islands have always been a key strategic location for the US Military and warning shots have been fired on what the US should be doing rather than focusing in an all-out battle with China along diplomatic channels to win Pacific hearts.
US negotiators had hoped for a speedy conclusion to the Compact talks, as the existing 20-year funding package expires at the end of September 2023.
However, grievances stemming from the nuclear testing remain a stumbling block for the Marshall Islands.
Chairman of the country’s National Nuclear Commission, Alson Kelen said despite what the US might think of the subject, it is something the nation wants a commitment on.
He said what the US can do now is work on the details for the funding needed to mitigate the problems from the nuclear legacy.
In his speech to the United Nations in New York last Wednesday, President Kabua said it was vital that the legacy and contemporary challenges of nuclear testing be better addressed.