“I will fight for freedom of my people until the last day of my life.”
Oscar Temaru, former president of French Polynesia, gave a poignant speech to the room full of students and academics about the ongoing struggles of the former French colonial islands in the Pacific to regain their autonomy and receive compensation for the fallout caused by decades of French nuclear testing. Temaru was joined by Representatives in Assembly of French Polynesia Moetai Brotherson, Richard Tuheiava, and Valentina Cross to shed light on the lesser-known history, current obstacles, and their hopes to exert more pressure on the international community.
The SIPA Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy Concentration and the Institute for the Study of Human Rights welcomed the delegation to Columbia University on October 5. SIPA professor Jenik Radon moderated the event, entitled “Trouble in Paradise: French Polynesia,” which was followed by the delegation’s interactive discussion with students on the editorial board of the Journal of International Affairs.
Temaru reminiscenced of the time when French Polynesia was “paradise,” prior to the the launch of France’s nuclear testing in 1966.
“[Charles] De Gaulle is a national hero to France… but to me, he’s a criminal,” Temaru said. Between 1946 and 1963, France spent around $2.5 billion on a nuclear weapons program, according to a declassified American intelligence document. It also reported that de Gaulle made French nuclear force his priority in order to strengthen his leadership position in Western Europe, make the region more independent of the United States, and give France its own means to deter Soviet aggression. Temaru said De Gaulle unilaterally decided to carry out nuclear testings in former French colonies without consulting the local population.
The paradise that once captured the imagination of artists like Paul Gauguin has become contaminated by France’s nuclear legacy. France conducted 210 nuclear testings from 1966 to 1996; 193 in French Polynesia and 17 in Algerian Sahara. The delegation said that the French government made no effort to inform or educate the local population in French Polynesia about potential hazards prior to the testings nor took full proper measures to contain radiation damage to the people on the islands. Moreover, the government had been keeping details about the contamination and damages secret from the public for decades.
French nuclear testing ended in 1996, but French Polynesians are still grappling with the fallout. The delegation claimed that over 9,000 people are believed to have been exposed to radiation, and around 240 die from cancer every year, a staggering number for a population of less than 280,000. In another former French colony, Algeria, roughly 27,000 to 60,000 people are believed to have been affected. The delegation mentioned that French National Assembly approved $11 million in compensation to nuclear testing victims in 2010, an amount insufficient to cover all victims.
The delegation elaborated on various challenges they still face. The French government has blocked French Polynesia’s effort to gain autonomy in “a new form of colonialism.” While some French presidents have made conciliatory gestures of visiting the island and acknowledging the contamination, all eventually uphold the status quo. The French government and corporations have been supporting local politicians in French Polynesia through “hush money” for new businesses and projects in return for silence on autonomy or compensation. Temaru called the local politicians who side with the French government in exchange for favors as his “worst enemy.”
The delegation will not give up on their fight anytime soon. Tuheiava discussed a proposed compensation bill of $1 billion for environmental damages in French Polynesia as a member of the French Senate. Brotherson, a member of the French National Assembly, has been persistent in trying to engage French president Emmanuel Macron on this issue. They have also been trying to add a new provision to recognize self-determination for French Polynesia in the French constitution, to no avail.
The panelists remain optimistic about the next generation of leaders and thinkers who are less motivated by financial incentives and more to serve the public good. The speakers appealed to the students in the room to help carry on the fight for freedom and human rights for everyone on the planet. Meanwhile, the delegation has revealed an unprecedented step that would raise awareness globally, potentially placing enormous pressure on France.
“We will be taking France to ICC [International Criminal Court]... for crimes against humanity,” Temaru said.
The room fell into moment of stunned silence. When asked by a student what the delegation aims to achieve with such a drastic and symbolic measure, Temaru gave one word answer summing up his nation’s decades-long struggle — “freedom.”
— Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19