The Trump administration is reportedly considering restarting U.S. nuclear weapons testing for the first time since 1992. If President Donald Trump proceeds down this path, the United States would be the first, other than North Korea, to flout the global norm against nuclear test detonations in 22 years. Is it possible to stop a superpower from exploding a nuclear bomb? The story of Cook Islands, a “small” country in the Pacific, suggests people at the margins of global politics have unexpected agency.

Between 1946 and 1996, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France conducted 318 nuclear test explosions in the Pacific region: in Australia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia (or Maohi Nui as it is known by supporters of its independence), Johnston Atoll (a U.S. territory) and Amchitka island in Alaska. The governments conducting the tests stereotyped the Pacific as a remote space ripe for experimentation, with people living there depicted as “few” and “uncivilized.” The nuclear detonations had catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences.

With global attention understandably focused on stopping COVID-19, preventing new nuclear tests can seem like an irrelevant, retro concern. Despite concerted opposition from arms control experts, Trump has already turned his back on the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Arms Trade Treaty, and previous administrations’ restrictions on landmines.

How do progressive activists find agency facing a nuclear weapons complex backed by the most powerful militaries in the world? Answers may lie in the history of the struggle against nuclear testing and the remarkable story of Cook Islanders’ resistance to the Bomb.

A “Small” Country Bans the Bomb

Cook Islands was among the first countries to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in September 2018. Adopted by 122 governments at the United Nations the previous year, the TPNW will – when it enters into force – comprehensively outlaw nuclear weapons among its members and establish a framework for assisting communities affected by use and testing.

The Treaty’s supporters – including the Cook Islands government – aim to stigmatize the only weapon of mass destruction not yet banned by international law. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for “its ground-breaking efforts to achieve” the TPNW and “draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons.

Cook Islands was not a site of nuclear testing. However, it was downwind from the U.K. and U.S. detonations at Christmas (now Kiritimati) and Malden islands in Kiribati from 1957 to 1963; and, in certain weather conditions, the French test sites at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls from 1966 to 1996.

Cynics were quick to sneer at Cook Islands joining the Treaty. Why would the United States or Russia care what a small island State thought about their arsenals? The nine nuclear-armed countries, along with their allies, boycotted the TPNW negotiations. What difference would the Treaty make? Echoing colonial condescension, commentators questioned whether Cook Islands even “counts” as a State in international law (factcheck: They do).

But Cook Islands has played an outsized and rarely acknowledged role resisting big military powers’ use of the Pacific as a “nuclear playground.”

Since gaining self-governance in 1965, key aims of Cook Islands’ foreign policy have been achieved: the Pacific is a nuclear weapons free zone; the U.K., the U.S., and France stopped their nuclear tests; the UN has adopted a nuclear ban treaty; and there is growing pressure to help nuclear test victims and remediate contaminated environments.

Cook Islanders achieved these successes not by force – they have no military – but rather through diplomacy, international law, and connections with global activist networks. If we define power as the ability to shape the world according to one’s interests and values, Cook Islanders have been unexpectedly powerful. (See Epeli Hau’ofa’s analysis of how outsiders underestimate the power of “small” Pacific states, here and here).

Downwind and Under Colonial Control

A year before the U.K. tests in Kiribati commenced, traditional leaders of Cook Islands on the capital island of Rarotonga composed a report highlighting the potential risks. But, under New Zealand’s colonial control, Cook Islanders struggled to convey concerns to those in power. New Zealand allowed the U.K. to set up a monitoring station at Tongareva/Penrhyn, Cook Islands’ most northern island, 750 miles from Kiritimati. New Zealand naval personnel played a supporting role in the U.K. test program.

Tauariki Meyer, who grew up on Rakahanga Atoll (850 miles from Kiritimati), later wrote that in 1957, when she was 10 years old, British and New Zealand naval personnel visited the island to inform them “not to drink any water from our wells or roof tanks nor to eat any vegetation, crops or fish for at least three months.” No alternative food supplies were offered.

Playing hide and seek one day, she saw a “flash of light brighter than the sun. Shortly after the ground shook. … That evening the whole sky turned red [and] it stayed like that for about a week. … A few days after the blast our lagoon changed colour and all of the fish died floated to the surface….” Meyer’s campaign for compensation from the British government for the health problems she attributed to fallout was unsuccessful.

Dr. Terepa’i Maoate, later Cook Islands’ prime minister, also reported seeing a flash while on Manihiki Island (900 miles from Kiritimati) during the period of the U.K. tests. He told a 2008 research conference “that he’d treated fatal cases of diarrhea and vomiting, and seen people with enlarged thyroids” but that no one at the time “made any connection to nuclear testing.”

In the run up to its first Pacific atmospheric nuclear test, on Sept. 11, 1966, the French government asserted that “not a single particle of radioactive fallout will ever reach an inhabited island.” This did not reassure the Cook Islands Legislative Assembly, which passed a resolution noting the “practicable impossibility of preventing fallout” and describing the proposed tests as a “serious menace to health and security in the South Pacific.”

As they prepared to explode the 120-kiloton device from a tethered balloon 600 meters in the air, French officials realized that winds were blowing toward populated islands. Since President Charles de Gaulle had travelled to French Polynesia to witness the test, they detonated it anyway.

Over the following days, and throughout the French atmospheric tests, fallout was detected in Cook Islands by a monitoring network operated by the New Zealand National Radiation Laboratory (NRL). NRL repeatedly stated that low-level exposure to ionizing radiation from fallout in the South Pacific “constituted no public health hazard.” But the most recent and comprehensive review of the scientific literature has confirmed that there is no threshold below which radiation is safe. There is always an effect, even if small, on the overall cancer rate.

A 1993 NRL report distanced itself from its earlier certainty, estimating a radiation dose from fallout that, according to the most widely used scientific model, would increase the cancer rate by about 1.1 per 10,000 people alive in the South Pacific during the period of atmospheric testing.

Independent Diplomatic Action

Cook Islands gained self-government from New Zealand in 1965 and has an unusual political status in the international system. Although a self-governing country with an elected government under a Westminster system, a constitution and the Queen of England as its head of State, it has residents but no citizens. All native Cook Islanders are also residents of New Zealand and can freely travel and reside in both countries.

Foreign affairs and defense are responsibilities of the Queen, after consultation by the prime minster of New Zealand with the prime minister of the Cook Islands. In the decades since self-rule began, the Cook Islands has become increasingly assertive in pursuing its own foreign policy. While not a U.N. member, Cook Islands can join U.N. treaties and is a full member of regional intergovernmental institutions.

Increased independence enabled Cook Islanders to express their concerns about the effects of Pacific atmospheric testing. Sir Albert Henry, Cook Islands’ first prime minister, had participated in anti-nuclear politics in New Zealand. Among his first acts in power was to deny flights associated with the French test program permission to overfly Cook Islands’ territory. The following year he refused to allow a dance team from the island of Aitutaki to participate in Bastille Day celebrations in French Polynesia.

In 1965, Cook Islands proposed a resolution at the South Pacific Commission, calling on France to consider the impact nuclear testing would have on people in the region. The colonial powers refused to allow the Commission, a regional body coordinating economic and social policy, to discuss “political” issues and so the Cook Islands resolution was ruled out of order.

“We are…a small country,” said Sir Albert, but “we are the closest to the French islands where the tests are to take place. … [I]f anyone has the right to speak out, then surely it is the Cook Islanders.”

Unwilling to let their voice be stifled, Cook Islands proposed to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa – the three fully independent Pacific island States – a new regional body that would allow the discussion of political issues. The first communique of this South Pacific Forum (now the Pacific Islands Forum) in 1971 raised concerns about French nuclear testing. Forum members then sponsored a U.N. General Assembly Resolution, passed in 1972, urging an end to French nuclear tests.

Growing opposition to French tests was also expressed in major sea-borne demonstrations off Moruroa. Greenpeace boats sailed into the test zone, violently repelled by French security forces. The New Zealand government sent two frigates, the HMNZS Canterbury and the HMNZS Otago to register its protest.

Australia and New Zealand (acting also on Cook Islands’ behalf) filed a case against France with the International Court of Justice in 1973, seeking to end atmospheric tests. Fiji also joined the suit. The judges’ preliminary ruling ordered the French government to “avoid nuclear tests causing the deposit of radioactive fall-out” on South Pacific countries. The Court declined to make a more comprehensive ruling when France stopped atmospheric testing in late 1974.

When France announced that it would move tests underground, the Cook Islands government joined a joint diplomatic note expressing  “fundamental opposition to all nuclear testing.” The government worried about accidents at the French test sites, as well as the risk of nuclear war in the region.

In 1985, Pacific States met in Cook Islands to sign the Treaty of Rarotonga establishing the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. The Treaty banned the “possession, manufacture, acquisition and testing” of nuclear weapons and the dumping of radioactive waste at sea anywhere in the Zone.

Nevertheless, there were loopholes in the Treaty of Rarotonga that allowed nuclear submarines to traffic Pacific waters. While the Soviet Union and China ratified their relevant protocols in 1988, France, the U.K., and the U.S. did not sign until 1996. The U.S. still has not yet ratified, though then-President Barack Obama presented them to the Senate in 2011.

Global Connections and Mass Protest

Before the 1980s, most Cook Islanders were cut off from the international news media and knew little about regional debates on nuclear weapons. Many Cook Islanders also have close family, cultural, and social connections to French Polynesia, where the test program made enormous public investments, which muted their opposition.

Even as he signed the Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, then-Prime Minister Sir Thomas Davis, chided New Zealand for closing ports to nuclear-armed U.S. ships. Davis, who had lived in America and worked for NASA, said the U.S. Navy were welcome in Cook Islands. There was little political action against the tests outside official circles and a few left-wing expatriates.

Cook Islanders views changed as they became more connected with the world. Many travelled to New Zealand, where the nuclear issue was front-page news following the 1985 French bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbor. Greenpeace protest vessels stopped in Rarotonga, welcomed by the government, drawing admiring crowds. By contrast, visiting French military personnel were met with verbal abuse from passersby.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement mobilized people at the grassroots. Backed by churches, trade unions, intellectuals, and NGOs, they amplified regional attention to the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapons.

The French test program created stark economic inequalities and social problems, particularly in Fa’a’a, a working class suburb of French Polynesia’s capital Papeete, Tahiti. Test site workers and their families, concentrated in Fa’a’a, began to speak about their health concerns to political and religious leaders. In 1983, NFIP activist Oscar Temaru was elected mayor of Fa’a’a, which he declared a “Nuclear Free City.” Temaru has family connections and friends in Cook Islands and sought their support.

When newly elected French President Jacques Chirac announced he would restart underground testing in 1995, ending a three-year moratorium, he ignited unprecedented indignation across the Pacific. Cook Islanders felt deeply afraid, both for themselves and their “cousins” in French Polynesia. Churches prayed for the tests to be cancelled. Children made anti-nuclear art in school. Medical professionals raised concerns about the effects of radiation.

“We are defenseless against this outrage. The whole thing is just so bloody frightening. They will poison our seas,” businessman Ross Hunter told The Observer. Cook Islands’ then-Minister of Agriculture and Conservation Vaine Tairea reported that older people were “refusing to eat fish caught on the eastern side of the islands – the side facing Mururoa.” Cook Islands News, now a full newspaper, reported on the planned French tests in almost every issue.

The prime minister, Sir Geoffrey Henry, sent a letter to the French government expressing “fervent hope” that it would “cease its testing programme at the earliest moment.” French claims that their nuclear tests were contamination-free were “an insult to our intelligence,” said Henry. These days, flipflops and plastic water bottles from French Polynesia end up on Cook Islands’ shores in Ngaputoru. We all live “in a single global environment,” he said. “All of humanity lives down current and down wind – we are all exposed, the amount is only a matter of degree.”

But Henry’s rhetoric was less confrontational than other regional leaders. Henry refused calls for Cook Islands to boycott the 1995 South Pacific Games in Tahiti. And he welcomed a visit to Rarotonga from president of French Polynesia, Gaston Flosse.

As a result, many Cook Islanders felt they could not rely on the government to express their indignation. Henry should “come out of his cocoon and take a much stronger stand,” said Dr. Terepa’i Maoate, then leader of an opposition party: “regardless of our small size, we cannot and should not continue to sit on the fence….”

When opposition politicians organized a demonstration against the tests, Henry pivoted, perhaps seeking distraction from a government finance crisis. In a full-page ad in the Cook Islands News he invited all people “to march for Peace and a Nuclear Free Pacific” and express support for Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior II, then in Avarua harbor.

On June 23, 1995, more than 1,000 people (around 5 percent of the population) marched in the country’s largest ever political demonstration. “We are here to protest against nuclear testing for the future generations,” a grandmother told the newspaper.

Two days later, a delegation calling themselves Ipukarea-i-o-Kiva (Pacific Home) headed to Tahiti to show support for Oscar Temaru and local anti-nuclear activists. “Let the women and children of the Cook Islands convince the people of Tahiti” that they could not accept the “murderous” French tests in “silence,” said the group’s leader and former Miss Cook Islands, June Baudinet.

Some Cook Islanders felt France’s intransigence required a more militant response. When Gaston Flosse visited Rarotonga on 7 August, 500 protestors met him at the airport. Felix Enoka, a Cook Islands champion body builder, was among them, having already joined a boycott of the upcoming South Pacific Games in Tahiti. Preparing for Flosse’s visit, Enoka and three friends hung a gigantic banner with the slogan “Nuclear Free” on Maungatea. Other activists collected tomatoes in an unsuccessful plot to give Flosse a pelting.

Cook Islanders aboard a vaka (traditional canoe), perform a traditional chant in protest against French Pacific nuclear tests, just outside the 12-mile exclusion zone around the test site Moruroa, August 30, 1995. Photo: Steve Morgan, used with permission.

Cook Islanders also literally took their protest to the waves. As part of a pan-Pacific movement to celebrate the heritage of Polynesian seafaring, the Cook Islands government had been sponsoring cultural voyages of a vaka (traditional double-hulled canoe), the 72-foot Te-Au-O-Tonga. A Vaka ki Moruroa (Vaka to Moruroa) campaign persuaded the government to support sending Te-Au-O-Tonga to join the Greenpeace protest flotilla headed to Moruroa.

“We are sending the vaka not because it’s aggressive or a threat to France,” said Brian Mason of the Vaka ki Moruroa committee, but rather “because it’s so utterly harmless and vulnerable.” Cook Islands News described it as “something of a David and Goliath situation.”

The crew faced strong winds and turbulent waters and agauntlet of French battleships and military aircraft; they reluctantly accepted being towed much of the way by their escort patrol boat, Te Kukupa. But by August 30, the two vessels reached the 12-kilometer limit of territorial waters off Moruroa. Drawing intense international news coverage, the crew of the Te-Au-O-Tonga faced Moruroa and performed pe’e (traditional chants) “urging the French to take their bombs away.”

On September 5, Cook Islands’ national seismic monitoring station detected the first nuclear detonation in the Pacific since 1991. Enoka, the bodybuilder, felt devastated: “I was thinking no, it can’t be true…it’s hard to believe.” Enoka had announced at a press conference the week before that if the test proceeded, he would burn a French flag at Rarotonga’s World War I memorial, dedicated to the 500 Cook Islands soldiers who helped defend France.

Hundreds of people came to the Cenotaph to watch as Enoka, dressed as a traditional warrior and surrounded by WWI veterans “shedding tears”, touched a flaming torch to a French flag. Cook Islands News described how the “pent-up emotions” of “anti-test anger” produced an “instant reaction from the crowd, with a wave of shouting and jeering joining the drumbeats as the tricolour was reduced to ashes.” People fed paper flags to the flames, venting “their frustration at France’s deaf ear to pleas of the Polynesian, Pacific and global protest.”

The same day, as the Te-Au-O-Tonga left Tahiti to return to Cook Islands, 15,000 Tahitians poured into the streets of Papeete to express their anger at the government. More militant activists occupied the Tahiti’s airport runway and set fire to the international terminal.

The South Pacific Forum’s secretary-general, Ieremia Tabai, expressed the region’s “deep disappointment,” saying that the Forum countries “deplore … the way the French use our backyard to test nuclear weapons, putting at risk the Pacific environment, and the health of Pacific peoples….”

France proceeded to detonate five more devices in French Polynesia. But facing diplomatic pressure, negative media coverage, a new case at the International Court of Justice, and global consumer boycotts, they finally backed down. Chirac cancelled the last two planned nuclear tests in 1996 and signed the recently negotiated Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Since 1999, only North Korea has flouted the international norm against nuclear tests. Cook Islands joined the CTBT in 2005.

Jolene Bousanquet of the Vaka ki Moruroa campaign lamented that there were “no winners” in the story of nuclear testing in the Pacific. However, while France “lost respect,” Cook Islanders “gained mana [honor or authority] from their campaigns.”

Support for the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

Today, there remain an estimated 13,400 nuclear weapons in the world. While public mobilization for nuclear disarmament has waned in Cook Islands, it has remained the subject of regular coverage in the Cook Islands News, as well as a government priority.

It would be “naïve” to believe Cook Islands could adequately respond to the humanitarian effects of a regional nuclear attack, Patrick A. Arioka told a 2013 conference in Oslo, Norway, on behalf of small island States. Then a Cook Islands emergency management official, Arioka is now a member of Parliament.

Pacific States are “determined to support the disarmament of nuclear arms” because the tests have threatened the “cultures and traditions” of those who treasure “our ocean and land environments,” said Arioka. Rising sea levels have increased the risk of “radiation leakage” from Moruroa, even its “collapse.” As a result, “the time for half measures is over.”

The way forward, Arioka said, was outlined in a 2011 international Red Cross resolution, co-sponsored by Cook Islands Red Cross, calling for a global prohibition of nuclear weapons, as well as international assistance for “recovery” of environments contaminated by nuclear tests.

The Oslo meeting laid the foundations for a nuclear weapons ban treaty, by reframing nuclear diplomacy in terms of humanitarian, environmental, and human rights concerns, not just national security.

As a non-member of the U.N., Cook Islands could not participate in the 2017 negotiations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But along with co-authors, Cook Islands submitted a working paper to the U.N., calling for closure of “the legal gap,” which left nuclear weapons the only weapons of mass destruction not yet banned by international law.

The TPNW categorically prohibits nuclear weapons and establishes a framework for their elimination. The Treaty’s preamble recognizes the “unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims” of nuclear weapons use and testing, as well as the “disproportionate impact” on indigenous peoples. As a result, the TPNW obligates assistance to victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and remediation of contaminated environments.

On June 11, the Republican-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee voted on partisan lines to appropriate $10 million for a nuclear test “if necessary.” The Arms Control Association said that if approved, a U.S. nuclear test would “raise tensions and probably trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other nuclear actors, leading to an all-out global arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.”

Siai Taylor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Cook Islands News that “What is perhaps not immediately clear to many … is just how close ongoing warring, strategic military and conflict situations are to us.” The “rising tensions” between military powers and their “continued reliance on nuclear weapons” has increased “the risk of a deliberate or accidental nuclear detonation.”

While it is “unlikely that we are the targets,” there is “a very real possibility” that Cook Islanders “would come in harm’s way, or fall victim to a … nuclear mishap,” said Taylor. Cook Islands’ 2018 accession to the TPNW was thus “a reiteration of our anti-nuclear weapons stance,” an expression of its commitment to “humanitarian values,” “sustainable development” and “international law.”

Cover photo: Cook Islands’ largest ever political demonstration, against French nuclear testing, 23 June 1995. Steve Morgan, used with permission.