Trouble in Paradise: Oscar Temaru on Nuclear Testing and Independence Aspirations

French Polynesia (FP) is composed of more than 100 islands in the South Pacific, spanning an area larger than continental Europe. France has governed this remote island nation since 1842, although FP has acquired increasing autonomy over domestic affairs since the 1940s. Currently, French Polynesia is considered an “overseas country” of France, which means Paris retains authority over the island’s security, foreign policy, currency, and justice system.

From 1966 to 1996, the French Government tested nearly 200 nuclear bombs on two atolls—a reef or chain of islands formed by coral—in French Polynesia. In 2016, then President of France François Hollande acknowledged the negative health and environmental consequences of the tests during a visit to Tahiti, the largest island and capital of FP. The total number of cases of cancer in French Polynesia is 9,500, particularly high for an island nation with just 280,000 citizens. 

On 5 October 2018, Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs (JIA) interviewed former President of French Polynesia Oscar Temaru and a delegation comprised of members of the FP Assembly and FP representatives to the French Parliament. Temaru was president in several non-sequential terms during the past decade. He has championed support for Polynesian citizens suffering from the effect of nuclear testing and of FP’s independence aspirations.

Editor's note:

This presentation and interview took place at Columbia University and has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Oscar Temaru
October 10, 2018
Members of the JIA Board meet with former Polynesian President Oscar Temaru and his delegation at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.  Photo credit: Jeenho Hahm

Temaru Overview: In the beginning, the public had no idea about the negative consequences of nuclear testing, which was a unilateral decision by France. Billions of U.S. dollars have been spent on nuclear testing in our country on the atoll of Moruroa, which is about 600 miles from Tahiti. I went there in 1964 and Moruroa was a paradise. We used to go there to fish and live the way our ancestors did. Lyrics from an old local song went ‘our way of life is based on coconut water, coconut meat, and fish. That’s the quality of our life.’ All that ended after 1966. 

Delegation: The French have been lying to us for more than 30 years, saying there is no danger. But as early as 1962, they had reports from the U.S. military about the dangers of nuclear testing. When they started the tests in French Polynesia, they knew what they were doing. 

Temaru: What I have seen on the atoll of Moruroa is a big sign, written in red, saying this island is severely contaminated and from now on it is strictly forbidden to fish or drink coconut water. 

Delegation: The amount France makes available annually to compensate nuclear victims—in French Polynesia and elsewhere—is less than the amount the city of Paris uses to clean dog feces from the streets. For the past 10 years, French Polynesia has borne the financial burden of supporting these victims.

Temaru: We have come back to New York to ask the UN General Assembly Fourth Committee [the Special Political and Decolonization Committee] to respect the old version of a general resolution [that took note of the negative health consequences of the nuclear testing and required regular updates on it. A draft resolution six months later omitted all such references.] We are going further to sue France in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. We will also go to Geneva to request a censure from the Human Rights Committee. 

Editorial Note: On 9 October 2018, Temaru announced that his delegation had filed a complaint against France for crimes against humanity at the ICC.

JIA: What outcome are you looking for from the ICC or from France?

Temaru: The only real compensation we’re looking for is independence.

JIA: Can you tell us a little more about how you came to be involved in the independence movement in French Polynesia?

Temaru: I used to work as a civil servant in the customs department, and the afternoon before I went on my first trip to New York the 1970s, a customs manager—a Frenchman—came to my office and told me to ‘lock the door’ and said ‘we never met but I came to tell you the Director of the Security of the Territory came to the head office and I heard him say they were planning to send you to jail. You are supposed to go to the office to pick up a gift, but you shouldn’t go because that box contains drugs and the French gendarmerie will arrest you.’ So, I didn’t go. The next day, I flew to New York to get the support of the international community about France’s nuclear testing. In 1977-78, we created our political organization and it was clear that we would fight for our freedom, our independence, and our right for sovereignty. 

In 2013, we got back on the UN List of Non-Self-Governing Territories, [which denotes places that are subject to a decolonization process and requires UN member states in control of them to submit annual reports about the development of these territories]. France has not accepted our re-inscription on the list.

JIA: We are now five years from FP rejoining the UN List of Non-Self-Governing Territories. What is the current feeling in FP toward independence?

Temaru: Next week, we would like to ask the current FP president to organize a referendum in our country about the re-inscription about the UN list. I am sure this would be very challenging for the current FP administration because I am sure we have the majority of public support. However, in the territorial assembly, the opposing political party has the majority by the number of seats.

JIA: How long would it take to move to independence?

Delegation: We would say the sooner the better, but we don’t want to rush things and not have France take responsibility.

JIA: What can the international community or France do to at least put this on a path to correction?

Delegation: The answer is quite simple: France must accept our re-inscription and implement the process of decolonization under the UN charter. We did not come to the UN to ask for independence; that will be up to the Polynesian people through a referendum. We are asking for a fair and balanced process. Since 2013, France has been denying the very fact that re-inscription occurred. We are asking for France to come to the discussion table and cease its master-slave relationship with us.