Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all.
It is a great privilege for me, both personally and as Prime Minister, to join you today for a truly historic occasion in the life of our nation. Today, we are righting a wrong; we are closing an unfortunate chapter in our history; we are bringing justice to a brave and proud group of Fijians to whom a great injustice was done.
Some of these men are with us today and we honour them for their service to our nation. We salute them for their courage and persistence over many years to get justice for themselves and their comrades who are no longer with us, those who have passed into history without seeing justice done. Had they still been alive today, they would rejoice as much as these men – that our nation has finally seen fit to recognise their sacrifice.
Today, a saga that began nearly sixty years ago comes full circle. Because we are finally making payments to 24 surviving veterans of the more than 70 Fijian soldiers who, in 1958, were sent to take part in the British nuclear test program at Christmas Island, in what was then the Gilbert Islands and is now Kiribati. It was called Operation Grapple and today we are still grappling with its effects.
As you all know, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands – along with Fiji – were colonies of the United Kingdom. Britain and its Western allies were engaged in a bitter struggle for military dominance against the former Soviet Union. And part of that included an arms race to build some of the most destructive weapons the world has ever seen.
As we also know, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasakiin 1945. Because of their terrifying consequences they brought World War II to an end. Yet not content with the unprecedented destruction those two bombings caused, the race continued to develop even bigger weapons.
In a series of tests in and around Christmas Island in 1957 and 1958, the British successfully tested the world’s first thermonuclear device – a hydrogen bomb capable of much more destruction than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
These men here today, and their comrades who are no longer with us, witnessed these explosions at first hand. From the decks of a British aircraft carrier, they were present when the biggest devices went off. The servicemen present – and the scientists and technicians who triggered these explosions -were told to avert their eyes to the blinding flash. But witnesses recall looking at their hands and being able to see their bones through their skin when the blast took place.
As well as the massive flash and the mushroom cloud that always accompanies a nuclear explosion – plus the shockwave that fans out from around the test area – there was a wave of radiation that people couldn’t see.But it has had a devastating effect on the health of many of our veterans to this day.
Our own men were never measured for radiation at the time, but a pilot who flew through one of the mushroom clouds soon afterwards received a dose of radiation equivalent to more than 12,700 x-rays. Our men were wearing t-shirts and shorts.
Of course, they were not the only people affected. Thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand servicemen, scientists and construction workers were also exposed. To this day, Britain has refused to pay compensation to anyone despite successive surveys that have shown veterans suffering from a range of terrible ailments – leukemia, other blood disorders, skin complaints and other conditions.
And worse, these effects appear to have passed to some of their children, who were born with congenital deformities and a range of diseases.
At last, after years of rejecting any claims for compensation because Britain says too much time has passed since these events, the current British Prime Minister David Cameron has finally acknowledged this moral challenge and says the issue will be revisited.
But Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing. We owe it to these men to help them now, not wait for the British politicians and bureaucrats. So today, I have the great honour to award these survivors a modest token of what we can afford to finally acknowledge the great injustice that was done to them almost six decades ago.
You may ask: why is Fiji taking responsibility for something that is the fault of Britain? My answer is this: Too much time has passed. The ranks of these survivors are rapidly thinning. Too many men – our fellow Fijians – have gone to their graves without justice. Those who remain deserve justice and Fiji as a nation is determined for them to finally get it.
We need to erase this blight on our history. We need to lift the burden on our collective conscience. There is a saying that justice delayed is justice denied. And these men have been denied justice long enough.
To them I say: We salute you for following your orders at the time, the orders of a colonial power pursuing its own agenda in the world. You are living testament to our determination to never again allow our pristine Pacific environment to be violated by outside powers in such a destructive and terrible manner.
History records that not only the British but other colonial powers such as the United States and France, used the Pacific to test weapons of mass destruction that some of them would never had tested in their own back yards. Indeed, nuclear testing in the Pacific continued as late as 1996 through France’s test program in French Polynesia.
As one, the Pacific nations stand and say: Never again. Just as we implore the industrialized nations now to stand with us in the battle against rising sea levels caused by the carbon emissions they cause, not us. We also implore them to join us in our commitment to make the Pacific nuclear free.
At the height of the Cold War, there were up to 70,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of the Great Powers. Through successive treaties and agreements, this has now been whittled down to around 16,000 weapons. But it is still enough to destroy our planet and the world we live in many times over.
It is a form of madness that we in the Pacific – the ocean that takes its name from the word “peace,” – find incomprehensible. Which is why we will always be on the side of those nations pressing for the dismantling of the world’s nuclear arsenals. And to finally draw a line under the era that these men here today witnessed for themselves.
I have a very personal link to this story because it was my late father, Ratu Inoke Bainimarama, who led the Fijian contingent that was sent to Christmas Island. Sadly, he did not live to see this day, nor benefit from the payments that his comrades and fellow veterans are receiving this morning.
But I know in my heart of hearts that he is with us in spirit today and would rejoice with all of us that we are finally drawing a line under this unfortunate episode – that he also witnessed, and like these men, never forgot.
I can tell you all that every Fijian joins me in thanking you not only for your service but for your perseverance and your patience. It has taken far too long. But today as a nation we say sorry. It was not our fault but we are sorry for what you have suffered over the years.
Unlike past Fijian and British Governments, we have not let the matter rest. We, the FijiFirst Government will not allow the voices pleading for justice to be silenced as they pass into history. We will not allow your just cause to be forgotten.
I am proud to lead the FijiFirst Government which is committed to giving substantive justice to every Fijian. And today, we are finally bringing justice to the veterans of Operation Grapple.
That is why this is such a historic occasion. Fiji is setting an example that we hope Britain and other nations will follow. I also hope that the money you are receiving will go some way towards improving the quality of your lives in your twilight years, along with those of your families.
Again we salute you and thank you for your service.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.