Human rights

British nuclear testing: Australia fails veterans again

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Defence force personnel stand around and watch, unprotected, as the British test a nuclear bomb at Maralinga in the 1950s. (Image screenshot abc.net.au)

Australian veterans of British nuclear testing have lost their bid to finally gain justice after the Australian Human Rights Commission quashed their claim. It’s a sad day not only for veterans, writes Joshua Dale, the lawyer representing them, but also for human rights in Australia.

The Australian Human Rights Commission shot down on Tuesday the nuclear veterans’ last legal avenue on a technicality – after 10 months they have just decided they can’t do anything as they don’t think they have jurisdiction.

Can you imagine finding out that our military personnel, our diggers, were sent into the desert, into the sky and out into our oceans to supervise, watch and secure, the explosion of radioactive nuclear weapons with little more protection than the shirt on their back?

You need not imagine because 61 years ago the Australian government, under the guise of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, approved radioactive nuclear weapons to be detonated on Australian soil, and in our oceans, not once but hundreds of times between 1952 and 1963.

The result is a generation of our diggers lost to horrific radiation related cancers and illnesses. Out of the 8000 servicemen sent to Maralinga, Emu Field and the Monte Bello islands, some 2,000 remain living, fighting and suffering amongst us.

To think of the prospect that any human being, let alone our diggers, would be knowingly exposed to the effects of radiation after seeing the consequences of atomic weapons just seven years earlier in Japan is unforgiveable.

The reality is that past, successive and the current government have failed these men. They have not acknowledged their wrongs, have broken policy promises and engaged in blatant and ongoing hypocrisy.

The McClelland Royal Commission in 1985 was not enough to force the government into action to provide support and compensation for the remaining veterans, nor was the threat of a class action or an ongoing campaign by lawyers, activists or veteran bodies. All members of government cabinets since 1952 were aware of what happened to these men and all of these governments have ignored our diggers.

These men have fought for this country — the same country has then forced them to fight for recognition and acknowledgment that what was done to them was inherently wrong. These men deserve the peace of mind to know the government who wronged them will look after them. Those that are left are now ageing, many sick and some dying from their exposure to radiation.

As more studies reveal the effects of radiation exposure on genes passed down through generations, they live in fear of the prospect and reality that they have exposed their children to potential illness, deformity and infertility. These sons and daughters have also been ignored.

The veterans were then forced, as a last resort, to appeal to the Australian Human Rights Commission alleging that the Australian Government had failed to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This is a document that has been paid lip service by Australian governments from its inception in 1948 to the present day. It has been quoted in parliament and Menzies himself proclaimed that Australia’s signature on this declaration indicated to the world “we stand for justice”.

After making this statement in 1949, just 2 years later an agreement was struck with the British government that would deny our diggers their right to life and to liberty and security of person.

This application has now failed on the basis that the commission does not have jurisdiction to consider the Universal Declaration. With no other human rights treaty in place during the nuclear tests there are now no further human rights based avenues available to them.

These men are now faced with the prospect that they will be left with no road to justice other than a plea for an act of grace by our current government. Or if proceedings are to be continued against the British Government, a speculative application to the European Court of Human Rights.

Tuesday was not only a sad day for veterans, but also a sad day for human rights in Australia.

It marks the day that the government, through its delegated body, fails to acknowledge a Declaration that set the foundation for every human right convention and treaty that has followed and we now enjoy today.

Let past, successive and current governments take note and let them be judged for their inaction.

Joshua Dale is an associate at Stacks Goudkamp Lawyers and is chair of the NSW Human Rights Committee of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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